Casinos May Face Bans on Smoking - Monday 6th of February 2006

p>One of the key issues the American Gaming Association will tackle next year will be fighting initiatives across the country that would ban smoking in casinos.

The association's chief executive, Frank Fahrenkopf, said the industry is "tremendously concerned" about the proliferation of anti-smoking petitions and other measures.

Smoking bans hurt business for casinos because some gamblers prefer to smoke, Fahrenkopf said.

As an alternative, the American Gaming Association is pushing casino members to adopt improved air filtration systems that can suck up smoke and blow in fresh air.

The association is working with the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers to create a "best practices" air filtration standard that casinos can follow, Fahrenkopf said.

After the first of the year, the trade group expects to meet with the heads of several state gaming associations to discuss a standard that can be shown to state legislators and residents, he said.

"The real battle is not the federal level," Fahrenkopf said. "It's going to be at the state level."

Also next year, the association is contacting leading air-conditioning vendors to participate in a new industry conference called G2E Institute to be held in May at the upcoming Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas.

The vendors will be able to demonstrate to casinos "the best technique for removing smoke," Fahrenkopf said.

Air filtration systems don't go far enough, antismoking advocates have argued.

Even the most advanced filtration systems aren't equivalent to a smokefree environment and can't prevent someone from breathing in smoke from a cigarette a few feet away, they say.

Creating a virtually smokefree environment inside a casino "seems a practical and doable thing," but more research needs to be done, MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman said.

"If you are standing next to someone who's smoking, I'm not sure there's something specific that exists to prevent you from inhaling the smoke just like I'm not sure if there's anything that can prevent you from inhaling smoke when you walk outside," Feldman said. "Having large-scale infiltration systems creates a much healthier environment for everybody."

A number of the company's casinos have high-tech filtration systems, including the Mirage, Bellagio and Mandalay Bay.

Filtration technology is constantly improving, Feldman said. New developments include table games outfitted with filters that suck up smoke, he said.

In New Jersey, the industry appears to have escaped a public smoking ban under consideration by the state Legislature. The proposed legislation would exempt casinos in Atlantic City while prohibiting smoking in other public areas.

The Casino Association of New Jersey recently funded a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers concluding that a smoking ban in Atlantic City casinos would result in a loss of $93 million in tax revenue to the state in the first two years of implementation. The study also projected a loss of about 3,400 jobs in Atlantic City and a loss of $175 million in wages within two years.

Released last month, the report was based on an analysis of gaming revenue at Delaware racetrack casinos before and after a smoking ban in 2002. Gaming revenue fell 19 percent during the two years following the ban and 20 percent at Dover Downs, a major casino in Delaware. That followed six consecutive years of revenue growth prior to the smoking ban, the study said.

The Delaware ban, which applies to public areas but not private clubs, survived a court challenge arguing that the prohibition violated the state constitution's equal protection clause. But a Superior Court judge in Delaware said the ban, intended to promote public health, was constitutional.

Casinos, bars, convenience stores and other venues with slot machines are facing down the possibility of an antismoking ballot initiative next year in Nevada that would prevent smoking in bars and taverns that also serve food.

That initiative, called the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act, is backed by various health organizations including the American Cancer Society.

A group of taverns, convenience stores and slot route operators gathered to oppose the petition drive and have advanced their own initiative that would maintain smoking in gaming areas. The industry group also filed suit in District Court in Carson City in March to block the Clean Indoor Air Act, arguing that the language was too vague, among other things. A state judge is expected to decide by the end of the year whether to allow or dismiss the injunction.

While both Nevada petitions exempt casinos, Nevada's gaming industry has joined the tavern industry in opposing the Clean Indoor Air Act, saying the measure would end up prohibiting smoking in hotel rooms. Backers of the act dispute that view, and a judge is examining the validity of those claims. Under state law, hotel rooms are viewed as private residences.

Buffy Martin, government relations director for the American Cancer Society in Nevada, has called the industry's claim a "junk suit" and said it is a tactic common in other states where tobacco companies have fought antismoking initiatives.

"They'll sue nonprofit organizations because there's no way the American Cancer Society can match the amount of money the tobacco companies have to fight this," Martin said.

Several states have enacted smoking bans in recent years, including Massachusetts, Idaho and Washington. A number of other states are considering smoking bans.

Antismoking petitions and legislation are gaining momentum nationwide because people have become increasingly aware of the dangers of second-hand smoke, Martin said.

"I think citizens agree that second-hand smoke is a public health problem," she said. "It's not just a nuisance anymore."

Some Las Vegas casinos have certain areas that prohibit smoking such as individual tables or banks of slot machines. While the newest properties boast high-tech filtration systems, many older casinos don't and are noticeably smoky.

The lone exception is poker rooms. The majority of Las Vegas poker rooms have gone smoke-free because a growing number of poker players prefer to gamble without breathing in smoke that was often thicker inside the poker rooms' enclosed walls.

Antismoking initiative petitions typically survive court challenges, Martin said.

"They're afraid this will go on the ballot because a majority of Nevadans support this," she said of the gaming industry's stance against smoking bans.

Smoking rates have declined in places with smoking bans, she said.

"When people can't smoke indoors, they will start to reduce their smoking," she said. "And the health risk to workers goes down."

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