Where there’s smoke, there’s a potential jackpot.
Or so it seems at Arizona’s 22 casinos, which are on Native American land, where state anti-smoking laws don’t apply.
But in an age when an estimated 80 percent of Americans don’t smoke, tribal casinos are investing in smoke-clearing equipment to keep non-smokers happy and playing the slots.
„It’s a business decision casinos are making,“ said Sheila Morago, executive director of the Arizona Indian Gaming Association.
„People say they don’t want smoke in their faces. And engineers keep coming out with newer and better (smoke-removal) systems.“
The Gila River Indian Community is spending approximately USD 500,000 on a state-of-the-art smoke-clearing system at a casino under construction south of Chandler.
The USD 60 million, 120,000-square-foot Lone Butte casino, on Kryene Road south of Loop 202, is expected to open in November and replace a smaller facility by the same name nearby.
„Gaming and smoking go hand in hand,“ said Harold Baugus, Gila River Casinos‘ chief executive officer. „A no-smoking casino is not an option.“
But although some gamers can’t imagine video poker without a smoke, others say they don’t want to leave the casino smelling like they have been to a fire.
„This is going to help considerably,“ Baugus said of the smoke-removal system.
Although there are casino anti-smoking movements going on in states such as New Jersey, Connecticut and Iowa, they are strongly opposed by casinos.
Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor newsletter and Web site, said the consensus of industry experts is that if casinos ban smoking, they will lose more customers than they will gain.
Many casinos are compromising by prohibiting smoking in areas such as sit-down restaurants, gift shops and poker rooms.
Most also have some sort of smoke-removal system. Casino operators debate the merits of various types: Some suck smoky air down and out through the floor, while others push it up through ceiling vents.
Casino Arizona near Scottsdale, Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino near Maricopa, Wild Horse Pass near Ahwatukee and Vee Quiva near Laveen are among the Valley casinos that use smoke-removal systems.
Lone Butte’s new system will work by cooling to 62 degrees air that is pulled from outside. As the chilled air is pushed up through 1,700 registers in the casino floor, it will take cigarette and other odors up and out through a ceiling-exhaust system.
The same technology will go into a rebuilt Wild Horse Pass that Gila River is expected to open south of Ahwatukee in late 2009, said John Straus, the casino’s general manager.
„We are bringing in high-level restaurants (to both casinos) that we hope will bring in non-gamers,“ he said.
„The smoke reduction will change the caliber of the environment at our facilities.“
Bill and Marilynn Bubb of Tempe are the types of customers Gila River hopes to attract with the new environment. They aren’t regular gamers, but they have enjoyed casino shows and lavish buffets at several Valley casinos.
What keeps the two non-smokers from going more often is air filled with cigarette smoke.
„The last time we went was a Sunday afternoon. The air was just kind of yucky,“ said Marilynn, newly retired from a staff job at Arizona State University.
„You wish someone would invent something like a giant hair dryer that could come down and blow the smoke out.“
State health officials and others say the only way to really be safe from the dangers of cigarette smoke is to stay away from it.
Smoke-clearance systems may „get rid of the smoke but not the toxins,“ said Wayne Tormala, bureau chief for the Arizona Department of Health Service’s Tobacco Education and Prevention Program. „The air looks cleaner, but you are still breathing in stuff that is not good for you.“
A doctor’s outlook
Retired Tempe physician Leland Fairbanks, now president of the Mesa-based Arizonans Concerned About Smoking Inc., explained that toxic particulates from tobacco smoke may remain in the air after the smoke itself is blown out of a room.
„And it isn’t the smoke that kills anyone; it’s the toxins,“ he said.
A 2005 report by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers and a 2006 report from the U.S. Office of the Surgeon General also say air filtration is not enough to completely prevent the dangers of secondhand smoke.
Baugus said Gila River Casinos is not making any health claims for its new smoke-clearance system. He said it is for the gamers‘ comfort while they are there to play cards or slots.