Casinos say smoking ban has cut into business

Atlantic City – Paula Cifelli, a dealer at Caesars Atlantic City, described one high roller who had the nasty habit of blowing cigar smoke in her face when he would lose at a hand of cards.

„He intentionally blew smoke at me,“ Cifelli said. „He told me, ‚If you don’t want me to do this, I’ll have to win.'“

The cigar-chomping bad loser is gone from the gaming floor thanks to Atlantic City’s new casino smoking ban, but Cifelli is worried that he and other smokers will return next week.

„As dealers, we depend on tips. But when you have somebody intentionally blowing smoke at you because he’s losing, the money doesn’t matter anymore,“ she said.

City Council has scheduled a final vote Monday to lift the smoking ban for at least a year to give the casinos more time to recover from the country’s economic crisis. Casinos say the ban has cut into business since it went into effect Oct. 15. They are generally supportive of reverting to an earlier law that allowed smoking on 25 percent of the gaming floor.

„We’re all waiting to see what happens with the smoking ban,“ said Larry Mullin, president and chief operating officer of Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa.

While casino executives have been complaining about business losses, some casino employees say the gaming halls are crowded with customers who enjoy the new, smoke-free environment.

„We’ve had more people than before,“ said Tom Donnarumma, a dealer at Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino. „I’ve had people tell me that they didn’t want to come down because of the smoke. They are really enjoying themselves because of the ban.“

Cifelli said casino companies and their employees will benefit by having a healthier work force no longer exposed to the dangers of secondhand smoke.

„It’s common sense. If you have healthy employees, the less you have to pay in health care,“ she said.

Donnarumma asserted that if the ban continues, all those predictions by Donald Trump and other casino executives of a mass exodus of smokers from Atlantic City will prove false.

„Within a month or two, they’re going to get used to us,“ he said. „I think the casino people, and Donald Trump in particular, are overreacting.“

Trump, whose company operates three casinos, believes the ban will be disastrous.

„I think the smoking ban will do more to hurt Atlantic City, in terms of dollars, income, financing, everything, than any single thing that I’ve seen over the last 15, 20 years,“ Trump said earlier this month.

Mark Juliano, chief executive officer of Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc., said he noticed an immediate drop in business on the first day of the smoking ban. As an example, Juliano described the Asian gaming pit at Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort as virtually deserted.

Asian gamblers are generally known as heavy smokers, so casinos fear that Asian games will suffer a severe loss of business. Although he didn’t disclose revenue figures, Mullin noted that Borgata’s Asian gaming pit has had a dropoff since the smoking ban began. The four Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. casinos have experienced a 22 percent decline in Asian gaming revenue.

Overall, revenue at the slot machines and gaming tables fell 10 percent – a drop of USD 3 million – at the Harrah’s Resort, Bally’s, Caesars and Showboat casinos owned by Harrah’s Entertainment during the first five days of the smoking ban, the company reported.

„What we believe is happening is that the customer is going outside to smoke or is going into the smoking lounges, therefore spending less money,“ said J. Carlos Tolosa, president of the Eastern Division of Harrah’s Entertainment.

Tolosa added that the revenue decline is even steeper among Harrah’s customers who smoke. In the smoking segment, slot winnings are down 20 percent and table game revenue is off 10 percent. The company was able to pinpoint the revenue decline among smokers by tracking its database of patrons who smoke.

Tolosa stopped short of blaming the smoking ban as the main reason for the revenue decline, saying that the weak economy and Wall Street’s financial meltdown could be other factors.

„It’s just too early to declare this a trend,“ he said of the smoking ban’s impact on business.

As a company, Harrah’s Entertainment is officially neutral on the gaming industry’s campaign to have the smoking ban lifted. Tolosa said he has decided not to push for a return of smoking for „my employees‘ sake.“

With smoking on the casino floor now prohibited, smokers are relegated to smoking lounges that contain no slot machines or gaming tables. Eight of the 11 casinos have indoor lounges. Borgata requires its customers to smoke outside in climate-controlled areas protected from the weather. The Atlantic City Hilton Casino Resort and sister property Resorts Atlantic City don’t have any lounges, meaning gamblers must go outside to smoke.

Puffing on a cigarette outside the Hilton, Marlo Habeshian, of Philadelphia, complained that the smoking ban will force him to go to the Pennsylvania slot parlors to gamble.

„Believe me, they will lose a lot of customers if they don’t allow smoking. I won’t come here anymore,“ said Habeshian, a two-pack-per-day smoker.