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Liz Benston

Smoking poses tough choices

22 September 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Lorelle Ellis and her husband have settled into a comfortable routine: A few times a week, often before dinner, they stop by Green Valley Ranch Station Casino and drop a few bucks in the slot machines.

Ellis quit smoking in 1966. What makes her different from many gamblers isn't that she doesn't smoke, it's that she isn't shy about complaining, to management and smokers alike, about the smoking of fellow customers.

She will happily ask nearby gamblers not to light up unless she's at a comfortable distance. If she's in a less charitable mood, she will let a smoker know that he is "doing her a favor" by giving her an excuse to cut short a losing streak and leave.

Many locals — even those who supported the 2006 voter-approved ban on smoking in restaurants and public areas beyond casino floors — have accepted smoking in casinos as a part of Nevada's "live and let live" culture.

But increasingly, casinos are accommodating gamblers like Ellis, who retired to Henderson from San Francisco 11 years ago.

Station Casinos, the largest operator of locals casinos, recently opened nonsmoking gambling areas at Green Valley Ranch and Red Rock Resort. The nonsmoking area at Green Valley includes 140 slot machines and is at the entrance closest to nearby homes. The nonsmoking area at Red Rock includes 110 slot machines near popular locals venues such as the movie theaters, bingo room and sports book.

Station is also planning a nonsmoking section at its Aliante Station casino in North Las Vegas, and a nonsmoking section is planned near the bowling center at Sunset Station in Henderson. (Green Valley Ranch and Aliante Station are owned in partnership with the Greenspun family, which owns the Las Vegas Sun.)

For casinos, the smoking debate hasn't been a public health issue, but a matter of simple economics.

Gamblers who smoke are more profitable, if not more numerous, than those who don't, managers say. Nonsmokers will generally still gamble because they have grown accustomed to the smoke.

Ellis, 70, and her husband, for example, continued to patronize Green Valley Ranch despite her complaints, and have not increased their visits since the creation of the nonsmoking area.

Those are powerful deterrents to a casino smoking ban, even for casino bosses who philosophically support it. But the long-accepted formulas appear to be changing as public demand has driven the recent moves to create nonsmoking areas.

Station Casinos spokeswoman Lori Nelson said the company is responding to customers' requests.

Ellis had complained to Green Valley Ranch management nearly a dozen times over a few years.

"I'm glad they're doing something about it," she said. "I see people who are drunk and I think, that's so foolish. But that is not affecting my health like someone smoking."

Casinos began to prohibit smoking in poker rooms a few years ago, after realizing that many players preferred not to smoke or drink to better focus on their games. A couple of years ago, MGM Grand designated four nonsmoking blackjack pits with 10 tables each. Both MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay, a sister property, will make tables nonsmoking upon request.

These smoke-free areas are minor experiments compared with the smoking ban that goes into effect Oct. 15 in Atlantic City casinos. (Casinos will be allowed to construct enclosed smoking lounges like those at airports.) That ban, the largest of its kind in the U.S. casino industry, will put the theories about gambling and smoking to the test once and for all and help determine whether people like Ellis are a small minority or a growing force.

"It's not about pleasing me. It's about making money," Ellis said with a laugh.

For casinos, which are among the last bastions for smokers, it's about trying to do both as smoking bans spread.