Yes, dice will roll, cards will be dealt and slot machines will beckon. But poker rooms? Closed. Tourists returning to Las Vegas will see changes since gambling stopped in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic. (May 22) AP Entertainment
LAS VEGAS – As resorts prepare to reopen in the era of COVID-19, a burning question has resurfaced: Should smoking be banned inside Las Vegas casinos?
The Strip has long been a destination for people looking to get away from the rules of home, gamble into the night – and freely puff cigarettes indoors.
In the wake of the deadly and contagious respiratory illness that’s killed more than 100,000 people across the country, smoking inside casinos has resurfaced as a make-or-break detail for tourists planning post-pandemic vacations.
“I personally will never step foot in a casino again if they allow people to continue to smoke while claiming they are doing everything they can to protect people’s health,” Debbie Ellis wrote in an email to Nevada’s Gaming Control Board.
“This is just common sense,” wrote Susan Lang. “Smoking must be banned on the casino floor. Speak to any health official. They would agree.”
But banning smoking in Nevada casinos is not up to gaming authorities.
Lighting up at card tables and slot machines is protected by Nevada law.
How does coronavirus enter the body, and why does it become fatal for some compared to just a cough or fever for others? USA TODAY
Though the Silver State launched the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act in 2006, the law doesn’t quite apply to The Strip.
The law outlines where people can smoke indoors in Nevada, as opposed to where they can’t – and the list where smoking is acceptable is a long one:
- Strip clubs and brothels
- Tobacco stores
- Stand-alone bars and taverns that are 21 and over
- Any area inside casinos where loitering of minors is prohibited, typically near gaming tables and slot machines
- Some convention centers
- Outside areas of restaurants
Banning smoking in casinos is a legislative issue that would have to be addressed when state lawmakers meet again in 2021, according to Nevada Chief Deputy Attorney General Darlene Caruso.
“The legislature has specifically stated that smoking is not prohibited in casinos and the statute even includes a provision that states any regulation inconsistent with that would be null and void,” Caruso said at the Gaming Control Board’s Tuesday meeting. “The board’s hands are tied.”
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As hotel-casinos prepare to open on The Strip June 4, the Nevada Resort Association contends all properties are in full compliance with the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act.
“Our members have always placed a high priority on air quality and have invested heavily in advanced technology throughout their properties that circulates fresh air and removes smoke and odors,” the resort association said in a statement. “They have reviewed their HVAC systems and are enacting additional measures to maximize the exchange of fresh air and are increasing the frequency of air filter replacement and system cleaning.”
What science says about smoking, COVID-19
Dr. Meilan Han, a pulmonary specialist at Michigan Medicine and professor at the University of Michigan, told USA TODAY that while most of the research about the novel coronavirus suggests older people are more likely to be hospitalized and die of the disease, there are other factors that put younger people at risk.
“People have been hypothesizing as to what some of the risk factors might be. We don’t have a lot of published data from the U.S., so we’re looking to the little bits of published data that are coming out of China,” Han said. “What they’re seeing is that one of the risk factors … does appear to be smoking.”
One report suggests that smokers have a 14-times higher risk of severe illness with a COVID-19 infection than nonsmokers, she said.
“We don’t have a lot of data on vaping right now, but there is reason to potentially hypothesize that things that cause lung inflammation like smoking, like vaping might increase the risk for more severe disease,” she said.
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Vegas has long been resistant to smoking bans
For many years, casino executives have argued a smoking ban would derail gaming in the Silver State, pointing to gaming revenue losses in Atlantic City, Delaware and Illinois, where such bans have siphoned the smoke out of casinos and gaming establishments.
“Historically, other jurisdictions that have banned smoking in casinos have seen revenues fall by about 15 percent in the short term,” said University of Nevada, Las Vegas gambling expert and author David Schwartz.
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A study commissioned by the Las Vegas and Reno-Sparks chambers of commerce in the late 1990s predicted dire consequences if smoking became banned in casinos, according to the Associated Press.
Gamblers would leave tables for 12 minutes every hour to light up, the study said. Those smoke breaks would add up to significant losses:
- A $1.9 billion loss to the casino industry over five years.
- A sales-tax loss of $50 million the first year.
- The loss of 20,000 to 30,000 jobs the first year.
But it may soon be imperative to push revenue projections aside and reconsider their support of smoking, according to Schwartz.
“I can’t speak to the science around whether smoking is a factor in the spread of infectious disease, but to the extent that visitors may believe that it is a factor, casinos may want to reconsider whether they allow smoking indoors,” Schwartz said in an email.
“Coming back from COVID-19, both casino patrons and employees may have increased concerns about the presence of cigarette smoke,” he said. “Given that the customer experience will be very different when casinos reopen, this may be an ideal time for Nevada gaming operators to consider changing where they allow smoking on their properties.
Contributing: USA TODAY, Associated Press.
Ed Komenda writes about Las Vegas for the Reno Gazette Journal and USA Today Network. Do you care about democracy? Then support local journalism by subscribing to the Reno Gazette Journal right here.
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