Haze of hypocrisy hangs in smoky casino air

You’re not allowed to smoke within 25 feet of the entrance to the Sands Expo and Convention Center, according to the sign.

On Tuesday morning, smokers blurred the 25-foot rule to catch a few puffs between programs at the annual Global Gaming Expo.

That irony, fogged in hypocrisy, wasn’t lost on Stephanie Steinberg. She led a small protest by Smoke-Free Gaming of America, which calls itself a nonprofit advocacy group founded by gamblers and casino employees, and the Transport Workers Union Local 721, on the sidewalk outside the behemoth convention hall. With the traffic on Sands Avenue grinding by, Steinberg found herself stating what has become painfully obvious to many Las Vegas visitors and locals alike: In 2015, indoor smoking makes no sense and is a public health hazard.

“It seems, in our opinion, that gaming is always behind the curve,” she said above the blare of passing motorists. “They’re kind of like chasing the demands of society, chasing the demands of their industry. The reality is they already know smoke-free is happening because they own smoke-free casinos in other states.”

Yes, there is that awkward detail for Gaming Inc. In state after state, where the industry has a shorter history and less political power, casinos are increasingly nonsmoking. It’s written into the law, accepted as part of doing business.

And from the look of things business is booming.

“The fact that MGM is building a $1.2 billion casino that’s going to be smoke-free in Maryland — if smoking was a necessity, you wouldn’t spend $1.2 billion.”

And Caesars opened a $442 million casino in Baltimore that prohibits smoking. Gaming industry trendsetter Steve Wynn is prepared to invest in a $1.7 billion casino resort in Everett, Mass., outside Boston that will be a smoke-free establishment — and he won’t need a complaint department to field calls from angry customers.

But even as the evidence of a link between secondhand smoke and lung cancer builds by the day, industry diehards in Nevada can’t muster the courage to make the transition into the modern era.

“They’ve historically been resistant to change,” Steinberg said. “They’re talking out of both sides of their mouth. You’re spending billions of dollars, but saying you won’t do there what you’re doing here.”

As a corny compromise, casinos have created nonsmoking areas, many of which are directly adjacent to the main casino floor. “The smoke doesn’t stop in a nonsmoking area,” Steinberg said. “As a nonsmoking gambler, the moment I walk into a casino I become a smoker.”

Although Steinberg said she believed some in the industry would be willing to make a change in Nevada if a ban were statewide, the official casino line has been consistent. They’re not only giving customers what they demand, they say, but the competitive nature of the market compels them to continue the practice. Casino ventilation has dramatically improved from the era when the haze gave the gambling floor the look of a pool hall. Casino restaurants no longer allow smoking.

Improvements have been made.

But change has come very slowly to casinos in Nevada, where the industry holds consummate political clout. Even the nicest places tend to reek when they’re busy, and the worst smell like an ashtray.

Just for laughs, try lighting up in any of the corporate headquarters here, or any office off the casino floor for that matter, and see how long you’re welcome in the building. Not long, pal.

The state’s casino bosses are lucky the no-smoking crowd is such a polite bunch. It would be a simple matter for them to disrupt corporate board meetings and all sorts of gaming-related events just by lighting up and puffing away for a few minutes. But that’s not their thing. As the advocates of clean casino air (and healthier lungs for gaming employees) like to say, the air is cleaner in Nevada prisons — where smoking is prohibited — than in Nevada gambling halls.

Around these parts, the smog of hypocrisy always hangs thick in the air.

— John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Contact him at 702 383-0295, or jsmith@reviewjournal.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

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