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Monday, December 29, 2008

At This Casino, Only the Slots Light Up

Monica Almeida/The New York Times

Richard Frank paying a visit to the newly opened Fernley Nugget, that rare Nevada casino where smoking is banned. Mr. Frank is himself a smoker but says he prefers the Nugget’s clean air.

Published: December 26, 2008

FERNLEY, Nev. — A Nevada casino without smoke might seem like the Strip without neon. But in this town off Interstate 80 a half-hour’s drive east of Reno, a new casino invites gamblers to breathe deeply, and not just to soothe nerves before a bet.

The Fernley Nugget, one of only two Nevada casinos that prohibit smoking, and the first built with the ban in mind, may be at the vanguard of what smoking’s opponents hope will be its eventual elimination in casinos, among the few public indoor places where many states still allow it.

“Everybody says smoking and gambling go together, and when you gamble, you do smoke more,” said Jane Magazu, 56, a former smoker playing a video slot machine at the Nugget. “But now I can go home and I don’t have to take a shower to get the smoke smell off of me. Smoke really bothers me.”

Advocates for smoke-free casinos are paying close attention to what happens in Fernley. But Scott Tate, general manager of the Nugget, which with only 10,000 square feet, 174 slots and 2 poker tables is dwarfed by the cavernous palaces of Reno and Las Vegas, makes clear that the ban here is all about business, not necessarily public health.

Marketing research, he says, simply suggested an opening for smoke-free gambling.

“We are not as a company taking a position to be smoke-free facilities going forward,” said Mr. Tate, who also oversees five other casinos in northern Nevada. “But this particular facility, in this particular market, in this particular location, we feel could be successful.”

Fernley, after all, is one of Nevada’s fastest-growing communities, and many new residents come from California and other states where bans on smoking in public places have been the norm for years.

“People say they like a smoke-free environment,” Mr. Tate said. “Well, here is one. Show me.”

So far, he said, they have. Though he declined to release figures, he said the casino, which opened Nov. 5, was meeting financial expectations even in a recession that has arrested one-arm bandits and all but stilled roulette wheels across the country.

The Nugget remains an oddity for Nevada, whose $11-billion-a-year gambling market towers above that of any other state. Casino executives tend to believe in an affinity between the pleasures of smoking and the allure of gambling, and their informal surveys suggest a correlation between high rollers and heavy smokers. They are also loath to undercut the expectations of tourists from countries where smoking bans are far less common, especially Asians, who account for a growing share of the casinos’ business.

In fact, a nonsmoking casino that operated in Reno in the late 1980s soon closed for lack of business, an outcome that casino operators frequently cite.

So while some casinos have voluntarily set aside parts of the gambling floor for nonsmokers, only one other in Nevada now has a total ban: Bill’s Casino Lake Tahoe, which went smoke-free in January 2007, hoping to capitalize on health-conscious tourists from Northern California. And its operator, Harrah’s, is not contemplating an expansion of the idea.

“Our position is we would be very supportive if everyone were to go in this direction,” said Marybel Batjer, a Harrah’s spokeswoman. “But it is very hard when you are adjacent to another property, a competitor, and they have an offering that you don’t.”

Nevada voters chose two years ago to ban smoking in most public places, but exempted casinos after operators complained.

“Gaming pretty well runs the state of Nevada,” said Tom McCoy, state director of government relations for the American Cancer Society, one of several groups that pushed the ban. “We felt, Let’s take care of the workplace, the day care centers, restaurants, places where families would be meeting.”

Of 23 states with casinos or combined racetrack-casinos, only eight forbid all smoking there, according to Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, an advocacy group based in Berkeley, Calif. Among the eight are Colorado and Illinois, where the bans took effect this year, much to the ire of the owners.

On the other hand, the City Council in Atlantic City voted 5 to 4 in October to suspend a total smoking ban that had been in effect only a couple of weeks. The Council’s vote, which followed casino operators’ complaints that the measure would be particularly damaging in hard economic times, left in place a statute adopted earlier that allows smoking on no more than 25 percent of the gambling floor. Critics call that law inadequate, saying smoke wafts into nonsmoking areas.

The Atlantic City ban was driven by casino employees who cited hazards to their health. Similar concerns have been voiced by casino workers in Las Vegas, where the results of a federal study on secondhand smoke’s effects on a group of them are expected in the next few months.

A 2006 study by the nutrition department at the University of Nevada, Reno, found that only some 21 percent of gamblers smoke, about the same proportion as in the general population. But leaders of the gambling industry say smoking bans have brought a drop in casino revenue where they have been adopted, just as operators of charity bingo, where smoking was once heavy, have reported a decline as a result of smoking bans in several states.

In Illinois, for example, revenue at riverboat casinos has fallen much more sharply in this first year of a smoking ban than in neighboring states where smoking is allowed, said Tom Swoik, executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association.

“We understand the overall economy is having some effect,” Mr. Swoik said, “but when you compare Illinois boats to those right across the river, you can see it is not just the economy. The only difference is the smoking ban.”

Here at the Fernley Nugget, any gamblers who want to light up need only stroll to a smoking patio out back, though on a recent afternoon the ashtrays showed no sign of use.

Mr. Tate, the general manager, said he thought the Nugget would succeed as a fresh-air alternative.

“People would love to be in a gaming environment but choose not to because of the smoking,” he said. “I definitely believe you will see more of this nature, the timeline of which I cannot begin to estimate.”