Are Vegas casinos ready to clear the air?

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Many observers have speculated Park MGM's casino in Las Vegas will become nonsmoking when it reopens.
Many observers have speculated Park MGM's casino in Las Vegas will become nonsmoking when it reopens. Photo Credit: Patrick Michael Chin/MGM Resorts International
Paul Szydelko
Paul Szydelko

For months the rumors about the Park MGM in Las Vegas have swirled like cigarette smoke: Will the resort house the first totally nonsmoking casino on the Strip when it reopens?

Officials at MGM Resorts International declined to comment about when or how the Park MGM, closed since mid-March because of the pandemic, will start welcoming guests again. But that has not stopped observers and industry experts from speculating about whether a smoking ban in casinos can limit the spread of the coronavirus and attract new customers going forward.

Longtime Vital Vegas blogger and podcaster Scott Roeben noted in a June 3 post that MGM Resorts surveyed players club members asking if a nonsmoking policy would encourage them to return sooner. He also reported that casino hosts contacted their best players to get their thoughts on the nonsmoking idea.

Although he does not know the survey results, Roeben told Travel Weekly that the response of his more than 70,000 Twitter followers has been mixed. "A surprising number of people say they'd visit a nonsmoking casino, even if they hadn't visited that casino before," Roeben said. "That's what Park MGM is banking on."

Roeben said he believes a smoking ban at the Park MGM (formerly known as Monte Carlo) would be presented by MGM Resorts officials as temporary "so they have some wiggle room to reverse the decision. That's because casinos are jumpy, and many buy into the notion people won't play if they can't smoke. That's absurd."

Cigarettes and cigars have long been synonymous with gambling, and smoking has been allowed in Las Vegas' casinos from the start. Glamorous casino scenes depicted in movies never fail to include smokers.

"There is an undeniable connection between smoking and gambling, although there isn't much research on exactly why," said Alan Feldman, who worked for MGM Resorts International for almost three decades and who is now a distinguished fellow in responsible gaming for the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). "As we've seen generally in society, the overall number of smokers is in decline. That said, the number of people seen smoking in casinos is clearly higher on a percentage basis than one would find in the general population."

Nonsmoking casinos have been implemented routinely throughout the country, but players continue to be free to light up in Las Vegas casinos. Most areas in Nevada hotels, including restaurants and currently vacant showrooms and convention areas, have been smoke-free since 2006. Several casinos, notably the Bellagio, Wynn and Venetian, offer smoke-free zones. Las Vegas Sands Corp. (Venetian and Palazzo) on June 18 updated its health and safety plan to ask table game players and spectators to refrain from smoking or vaping, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

"The challenge in Vegas has been the fact that smoking has been in casinos since the start of casinos," said Howard Stutz, executive editor of CDC Gaming Reports. "It's always been that type of attitude. People are used to just lighting up whenever."

Those who are most passionate about the subject will speak up on any smoking policy, Stutz said. "People will complain in the short run, especially smoking advocates and so-called freedom advocates, who will vow never to go to the property, but that may die out. Think of paid parking; people complained, and maybe a few boycotted properties with paid parking. But for the most part, paid parking became a valuable revenue source for the casinos." (Resorts have suspended their parking fees since reopening in June in an effort to attract drive-market visitors.)

Michael Green, a gaming historian at UNLV, said a decision to ban smoking may differentiate the Park MGM in the market. "It strikes me as a worthwhile experiment for Park MGM," Green said. "They have been trying to stamp it as a different sort of property, and that's another way to do it. We have seen a decline in cigarette smoking nationally over the years, although, obviously, it continues in Las Vegas casinos, and that might be a selling point. Offering that selling point when everybody is well aware of a virus that affects the respiratory system may not be a bad idea, either."

Roeben says he thinks the Park MGM will benefit from trying something new. "The pandemic is providing cover for doing this, but they needed help prior to the crisis, and this will be a fascinating experiment for them," he said. "I think it will disprove many of the outdated views of some in the casino industry."

Whether other casinos would follow suit if the Park MGM's casino implements a smoking ban is anyone's guess.

"Las Vegas has become so much more than simply a gambling destination," Feldman said. "Tourists come here for the hotels, shows, restaurants, clubs, sporting events, spas and attractions. Millions come here for conventions and trade shows. The number of nonsmokers has grown dramatically in the past decade, as have the areas of each property that no longer permit smoking, including several poker rooms and sports books. So I think it ultimately would be helpful."

Roeben concurred, noting that casino customers have changed, and casinos have become less important to a resort's bottom line.

"Ultimately, how did banning smoking in airplanes and restaurants and other places people gather affect those industries? It didn't," Roeben said. "Casinos need to get a clue. The bottom line is smoking is harmful to health. That's true for the person smoking and the people around them. It was true before the pandemic, and it's still true. It's time for smoking and gambling to be disentangled. [If it happens] Park MGM going smoke-free is a great start."

David G. Schwartz, a gaming historian at UNLV, says this unprecedented time may allow casino operators to try to extinguish the habit.

"There are many people who don't like breathing in secondhand smoke, so having a casino where they don't have to may be a plus," Schwartz said. "Having more choices will benefit Las Vegas. We are very far behind the curve when it comes to smoking in public spaces, and this may open people's eyes in Las Vegas."

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