Survey: Smoke-free casinos preferred by most New Englanders

Ban smoking near the slot machines and gaming tables and watch casino revenues tank.

For years, that gaming-industry mantra has run up against - and often overrun - claims that gamblers' secondhand smoke imperils other gamblers and casino workers.

But new survey results released Friday indicate that most New Englanders would prefer resort casinos that ban smoking over those that allow it, a finding that's counter to conventional wisdom, according to Clyde Barrow, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

In a random-sample poll of nearly 4,000 residents of the region's six states, half of those who participated in some form of gambling in the past year say they are more likely to visit a casino where smoking is prohibited on the gaming floor. Only 15 percent say they would be less likely to visit a casino where smoking is banned, while 35 percent say it doesn't matter.

Among respondents who had actually visited a casino in the past year, 53 percent said they are more likely to visit a casino that bans smoking. Among women, who constitute a majority of slot-machine players at New England casinos, 57 percent prefer a smoke-free gaming floor, the survey found.

On right path

Barrow, who supervised the poll conducted as part of the center's biennial New England Gaming Behavior Survey, said the results show Massachusetts lawmakers were on the right track last year when they passed an expanded-gambling bill that would have prohibited smoking in 75 percent of the gaming floor space in casinos. The proposed legislation failed, but the restriction on casino smoking is likely to be included in any casino bill the legislature considers this year, according to Barrow.

In Connecticut, Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun maintain sizable no-smoking areas on their gaming floors, in accordance with agreements worked out with former Gov. M. Jodi Rell in 2009. The deals helped the Indian tribes that own the casinos, the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegans, respectively, forestall calls for an outright ban on smoking at the casinos.

The poll results suggest that fighting smoking bans is a misguided policy for casinos to follow, Barrow said.

Prohibiting smoking on Massachusetts' gaming floors, he said, "may actually provide Massachusetts casinos with a unique opportunity to attract gamblers living in Connecticut and Rhode Island, who by large majorities prefer a smoke-free and healthier environment."

Barrow said the poll results didn't surprise him because such a large portion of the population doesn't smoke. And, he added, nobody had ever actually asked people before whether they preferred smoking or smoke-free casinos.

About 85 percent of New England's adults don't smoke. According to a 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 16.1 percent of Massachusetts adults do. The percentage of smokers is 15.9 percent in Connecticut, 17.4 percent in Rhode Island, 17.1 percent in New Hampshire and 18.2 percent in Maine.

Barrow also said he thinks the smoking-in-casinos debate has been colored by the notion that serious gamblers tend to be smokers, and that a smoking ban is a sure way to drive them out of a casino. In recent years, that would seem to have been the case in many jurisdictions where casino smoking bans were imposed.

Direct connection?

Smoking in Atlantic City's 11 casinos had been limited to no more than 25 percent of gaming areas since 2006 when an outright ban took effect in October 2008. Less than two weeks later, the city council voted to revert to the partial ban amid a marked decline in casino business.

In Illinois, a smoking ban that took effect Jan. 1, 2008, was blamed for a drop-off in revenues at the state's casinos. Last month, the Illinois House voted to lift the smoking ban in casinos, with proponents of the move saying it has cost the state $800 million in lost casino-tax revenues. The ban, they contend, drove gamblers to neighboring states that allow smoking.

The Illinois Senate has yet to act on the measure.

Some, like Barrow, say that in such cases it's the economic conditions that affected casino revenues, not the smoking prohibitions.

Illinois, for example, banned casino smoking just as the recession was hitting, Barrow said, and people mistakenly attributed subsequent revenue declines to the smoking ban. He said Harrah's, one of the better-performing Atlantic City casinos, has kept a partial smoking ban in place.

"The biggest barometer is Nevada," Stephanie Steinberg, chairwoman of Smoke-Free Gaming of America, a Colorado-based nonprofit advocacy group, said. "Revenues are down there, and they allow smoking everywhere. ... It isn't about smoking, it's about disposable income."

Smoke-free casinos have recently opened in Maryland and West Virginia.

Steinberg said the tide has been turning in favor of efforts to eradicate smoking at casinos. The image of the chain-smoking, hard-drinking gambler has waned.

"Most gamblers don't smoke," she said. "And casinos are focusing more and more on nongaming amenities, their hotels, their restaurants. People are living far healthier lives."

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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POLL

Would you prefer a smoke-free casino experience?

Yes

71%

No

29%

Number of votes: 150