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[Vegas on My Mind]

Will Nevada ever see smoke-free casinos?

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MGM’s Gold Strike casino in Tunica, Mississippi recently opened a non-smoking area.

She smiles at me broadly, a queen of hearts hurtling my way, photos of happy gamblers drinking and winning as they always do in these things. But this wasn’t just any old casino ad. “NEW! SMOKE-FREE 2ND FLOOR CASINO NOW OPEN,” it bellowed from a full-page in poker magazine Bluff, of all places.

“You asked for it and we listened!” the ad exclaimed. The casino in question? MGM’s Gold Strike—in Tunica, Mississippi.

Mississippians and Tennesseans are clamoring for non-smoking areas? Apparently yes. In fact, so much so that this is the first and only MGM property in the U.S. to provide a full-fledged, truly separate non-smoking section. Even more surprising: MGM views it as a competitive marketing advantage—in states that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, have a high proportion of smokers, both around 25 percent versus the national average of 18 percent.

How is it possible, then, at this late hour in the anti-smoking movement there remains not a single Vegas casino that is either non-smoking or even provides a serious non-smoking section? Why Mississippi and not Nevada?

The official answer: Because they can. The second-floor casino at Gold Strike is new, a formerly non-gaming space with physical distance from the original casino area. And, of course, “You asked for it and we listened!” Which is kind.

The long-standing claim in Las Vegas has always been that gamblers are smokers, and that the activities literally go hand-in-hand for an important population. Those claims are starting to lose their credibility, though, as casino gambling has become both popular and socially acceptable while smoking has become unpopular and socially offensive. There have been a few case studies promulgated by the casino industry’s lobby, the American Gaming Association, suggesting that casinos forced by local law to go smoke-free have suffered financially with reduced profits and customers defecting to casinos in smoker-friendly locales. However, most of those studies don’t take into account other factors such as, say, a devastating recession or the debut of a new, competing resort.

What we do know is that pretty much every poker room in Las Vegas has been smoke-free for years without issue. Aria just made its sports book non-smoking as well, a first.

Around the city, there are some smoke-free bingo parlors or sections of bingo parlors, and a Las Vegas Advisor website that tracks non-smoking offerings indicates that there are supposedly smoke-free banks of slot machines and non-smoking table games here and there, though the signage is frequently hard to spot and enforcement is modest at best. MGM spokesman Alan Feldman added that if a gambler sidles up to an empty table at MGM casinos in Vegas and asks for it to be non-smoking, it will be deemed thus for however long that player remains there, though Feldman acknowledged he didn’t know how guests would know about that rule.

Feldman and I have been discussing smoking in casinos for many years. In 2008, as the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act was kicking in with its casino-floor exemption, he predicted that smoking would disappear from casinos within a decade because the social shift would inevitably force it. Now he’s not so sure.

“I don’t see a time where, absent federal law, everyone goes smoke-free,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Macau, the law requires half the gaming areas to be non-smoking. Legislators there are even pushing a full ban, according to the Macau Business Daily, because “workers’ health should be given a priority given the dangers of secondhand smoke.” In Vegas, some of the same gambling operators have gone to court to defend against dealers suing over unhealthy working conditions.

Feldman said there is another prospect that could alter the status quo: customers insisting on a change. But, he added, there aren’t many complaints about smoking in the casino.

That’s intriguing. You’d think the cross-section of Middle America that comes to Vegas would speak up the way, say, the fine folks of Mississippi and Tennessee evidently did. As a Gold Strike spokesman said on TV just after the new area opened, “We do a lot of customer research, and for us, it was pretty obvious that customers wanted an alternative, wanted an opportunity to gamble in a smoke-free environment.”

Feldman believes someone in Vegas may give a totally non-smoking casino a try. The last time it was attempted was the Silver City, which is now closed.

Today, I suspect the time is right. I get that Vegas is the place where you can do all those transgressive things. But so were clubs in New York and California—and they got over it.

As in Tunica, though, it might require you to ask for it. Maybe then they’ll listen.

Correction: The smoke-free casino attempted in Las Vegas was the Silver City, not the Silver Slipper.
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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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