LAS VEGAS — It was Final Four weekend, and James Riviello was in a mood to make some serious money. The professional gambler sat in a puffy tan leather chair inside the mammoth Westgate Casino sports book, a realm the size of a Costco warehouse, with eight super screens showing his favorite sport in colorful high-definition.
Here in the place known as Sin City, where vice normally calls the shots, there was something refreshing about the scene. You could almost call it healthy.
Nobody was smoking.
Just weeks before, the Westgate had banned cigarettes and their acrid aroma inside one of the city’s largest sports books. Gone were the characters straight out “Mad Men” — chain-smokers who flicked their lighters every few minutes, cigarettes dangling from their lips.
For Riviello, the resulting thrill was like raking in his winnings at the cash window. “It’s just so aggravating when someone sits there and blows smoke in your face,” said the 29-year-old Pennsylvania native. “Now when I see them light up, I just point to the no-smoking sign and shoot them a look that says ‘Put that out.’ A few might complain, but most of them do it.”
In a city that all but encourages bad behavior, casino bosses here flaunt their gaming floors as the last bastion of the guiltless cigarette.
But Westgate’s move suggests the continuing cultural shift toward smoke-free cities and public spaces may finally clear the air of some of the most celebrated smoke-filled rooms: Vegas casinos.
Jay Kornegay, Westgate’s Las Vegas vice president of race and sports operations, said he thinks the day is coming. “We’ve already gotten calls from some other operations in town,” he said. “People are surprised we haven’t gotten more pushback.”
In recent years, other Las Vegas sports books have banned smoking. Casinos offer nonsmoking gaming areas with special ventilation units, and most poker rooms are now smoke-free. But a stubborn resistance remains among casino bosses here against going totally smokeless, despite a growing public outcry.
In 1999, Nevada was the smokiest state in the nation, with nearly one-third, or 31.5 percent, of residents claiming cigarette habits. By 2014, that number had dropped nearly in half, to 16.9 percent. That followed a 2006 voter initiative in Nevada that banned public smoking, including lighting up while playing slot machines in restaurants, stores and gas stations.
But, as usual, the casinos got a pass.
“They are very influential,” said Maria Azzarelli, tobacco control program coordinator for the Southern Nevada Health District. “It’s very hard to fight against all that power.”
The city has even bucked an anti-smoking trend within the nation’s gaming industry. Of the 23 states with commercial casinos, 18 outlaw smoking. But not Las Vegas.
“We’re different,” Kornegay said. “Las Vegas is proud of its reputation as the nation’s adult playground. What you can’t do in other states is part of the experience here.”
Then there’s the money factor: Studies suggest that smoking bans have historically led to steep declines in gaming revenue.
A 2014 report by Deutsche Bank suggested that a ban in Nevada could mean a 7.5 percent decline in gaming during its first year. Delaware’s gaming market fell 11.3 percent following a smoking ban in 2002. Illinois casinos reeled from a 20.9 percent revenue plunge after smoking was banned statewide in 2007, according to the report.
“Nevada’s gaming industry has witnessed the results in other states,” said Andrew Zarnett, a Deutsche Bank gaming analyst who authored the study. “Operators and other stakeholders there, including the people who collect the taxes, have decided they’re not willing to take that decline in revenue.”
Casino bosses might also think that the experience of smoking somehow fuels more gambling. An internal 2003 report for the Australian gambling company Tattersalls (leaked to the Age newspaper in Melbourne) claimed that “smoking is a powerful re-inforcement for the trance-inducing rituals associated with gambling.”
Furthermore, “daily smokers gambled on more days and spent more money gambling; they also ‘craved’ gambling more and had lower perceived control over their gambling,” according to a 2002 study in the scientific journal Addiction.
Zarnett said a smoking ban would initially disrupt customer wagering patterns, forcing many smokers to take a cigarette break from the gaming tables. Those breaks could break any “trance” and force gamblers to think harder about their losses.
Stephanie Steinberg became so disgusted by the smoky atmosphere inside Las Vegas casinos that she formed a nonprofit group, Smoke-Free Gaming of America, to ban the practice from gaming floors nationwide. The professional blackjack player said the second-hand smoke is dangerous not only to fellow gamers but also to employees who must inhale carcinogens during an entire shift.
“I just could not stand the smoke in Las Vegas,” she said. “I would talk to dealers and ask them ‘How do you handle this?’ And they would say ‘We can’t stand it.’ Many would tell me about a litany of heath concerns, from heart disease and asthma to having part of a lung removed.”
Steinberg’s group is driven by a sobering statistic: Each year, 53,000 Americans die from the effects of second-hand smoke. In 2009, after complaints of the effects of second-hand smoke by dealers in Las Vegas, the federal National Institute for Occupational Safety and Heath conducted a study that found nonsmoking dealers had increased levels of carcinogens associated with cigarettes in their blood following an eight-hour shift.
The organization recommended a casino-wide no-smoking ban to protect employees.
Steinberg criticizes the industry for catering to a smaller percentage of their clientele.
“This is what the casinos need to realize: More than 80 percent of gamblers do not smoke, but they are still kowtowing to a tiny portion of those who still light up,” she said. “The irony is that they’re killing off their customer base by promoting smoking.”
Recently, Markus Battle sat at a slot machine inside the Westgate, his pack of Newports on the table next to him. Entranced by his play, he let his cigarette burn down to the filter. If the day comes where he can no longer smoke, he says he would quit his Vegas habit.
“This is the only place I know where I can come and do what I want,” said the 30-year-old Californian in an Angels baseball cap. “Don’t take that away from me.”
Inside the sports book, David Stanley said he’s a fan of the new no-smoking rule.
A year ago, the Greeley, Colo., resident and 35-year-smoker contracted cancer and had a lung removed. Before last month’s ban, whenever he gambled at the Westgate’s sports book, the smell of smoke would stir the impulse to reach for a cigarette.
“It was always an adrenaline rush,” he said. “That first drag clears your mind, makes you think you have all the right answers.”
So has a cigarette-free life meant a gambling losing streak?