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NIGA panelists back smoke-free tribal casinos

A panel on smoking in casinos seemed more like a rally for smoking bans than a debate over whether the COVID-19 pandemic presented an opportunity to forever ban smoking from tribal casinos.

The four panelists were participating in a session Tuesday during the Indian Gaming Tradeshow and Convention underway at Caesars Forum in Las Vegas. They presented data and anecdotes suggesting that casinos wouldn’t suffer any long-term economic downturn if they made their properties smoke-free.

The session was just one of several offered during the second day of the National Indian Gaming Association event that continues Wednesday, when its trade show opens.

Panelist Michael Meczka said data collected indicated before and after the pandemic showed that after an initial downturn in revenue at tribal casinos that banned smoking, revenue amounts came roaring back within a year and were higher than they were before the ban.

The criterion of a smoke-free environment was the second-highest factor in a player’s decision about where to gamble, behind location, said Meczka, who is president of Los Angeles-based MMRC Inc., a market research and consulting firm,.

The smoke-free environment ranked ahead of a complimentary room offer, “competitive” gaming machines, a competitive player’s rewards program, free-play offers and the allowance of smoking. Those factors ranked ahead of the incentive of two-times and three-times point days and complimentary entertainment.

“The fallacy we had operated with was that these people weren’t going to come back (if smoking was banned),” Meczka said.

Employees also appreciated not having to fear second-hand smoke, he said.

Panelist Terry Savage, executive director of tribal enterprises for the Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa Indians, said COVID-19 drove no-smoking policies.

“It was an easy, easy decision to stop the virus by banning smoking,” Savage saiid. “But when I took it to managers, they said, ‘You want to do what?’”

Eventually, he convinced leaders to try a smoking ban.

“Initially, I was the worst guy on Earth (to customers who were smokers). They said, ‘I hope you fail,’” he recalled.

He then researched data from the casino’s loyalty program and determined that the loudest complaints were coming from the lowest-rated players. The decision was made to try the ban and from there, the company never looked back.

“A lot of the employees were scared about COVID and wondered what would happen to their jobs if smoking were banned. Once the change was made, the air quality improved in the casino and employees were happier.”

Panelist Clinton Isham, who leads a national health and safety campaign and serves as a consultant for the Americans for Nonsmokers Rights’ Foundation, was instrumental in getting the Ho Chunk tribe in Wisconsin to go smoke free in 2015.

“After two to three months of declines (in revenue) after the change, we had an unbelievable increase for three to four months,” he said.

The casino invested $8,000 in glass panels to provide a casino-floor smoking area. Eventually, all six Ho Chunk casinos went smoke-free with similar results.

Dan Brown, executive manager of Ho Chunk Gaming in Madison, Wisconsin, said in a video presented during the panel that employee retention has improved and the company is saving money in health insurance as well.

The economic side of smoking bans is among the evidence provided by the Berkeley, California-based Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights in its bid to ban smoking in Nevada’s commercial casinos.

So far, the organization’s pleas have fallen on deaf ears as most casinos are reluctant to change practices that have been in place for decades.

Last year, MGM Resorts International announced that its Park MGM property would go smoke-free. The company hasn’t indicated whether the change has altered the property’s revenue production.

Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @RickVelotta on Twitter.

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