In a gambling casino, you can lose your shirt — and worse, your health. That’s why several groups are working on California’s Indian casinos to go smoke-free. Many such casinos, particularly in San Diego County, have enclosed rooms or areas that are nonsmoking.
But the reformers want 100 percent smoke-free. “In California, patrons are not allowed to smoke anywhere else indoors,” points out Narinder Dhaliwal, project director of California’s Clean Air Project. Why can’t laws that apply to other businesses also apply to Indian casinos?
The major reason is that the tribes have sovereignty, but “the reality is that only Congress has the authority to regulate the tribes and thereby the casinos,” says Nikki Symington, a public relations consultant for San Diego–area tribes. My sources don’t know of any significant push toward casino smoke regulations gaining momentum on Capitol Hill. That’s hardly surprising. Las Vegas casinos are veritable smokehouses, and Nevada’s Senator Harry Reid is senate majority leader.
Phil Toomire, who lives in the Temecula/Murrieta area, is annoyed by the smoke-filled atmosphere when he visits casinos, which isn’t often. He wrote Chuck Washington, mayor pro tem of Temecula (now mayor) about the smoke at the Pechanga Casino. “The casino operates under the jurisdiction of a private corporation on tribal lands and the City exercises no authority over any part of its operation,” Washington wrote back.
Rudy Prieto, Pechango’s general manager, wrote Toomire that the casino could not put in a separate nonsmoking room, but “I can assure you that we have the most modern, effective air circulating system in the country.”
But air-circulation/ventilation systems and nonsmoking rooms don’t satisfy reformers or medical experts. There are only two smoke-free Indian casinos in California, says Cynthia Hallett, executive director of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights in Berkeley. Those casinos are both up north: Win-River in Redding and Lucky Bear in Humboldt County.
There is a false perception that most gamblers are smokers, say the reformers. It’s based on the notion that someone addicted to gambling will also be addicted to tobacco, says Hallett. For years, casino owners argued that 70 percent of gamblers were smokers. But in 2006, researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno, studied the habits of 17,723 gamblers. Only 20.9 percent of them were smokers — about the same as the national average. (Only 11.9 percent of California adults smoke.) The exception in the study was at rural casinos, where the percentage was 36.5. The research suggests that if casinos were made smoke-free, business would not suffer.
Health is a major factor. Last year, scientists at Stanford and Tufts universities published a study in the journal Environmental Research. They examined 66 smoky casinos in five states and three that were smoke-free. Key finding: less than two hours of exposure to secondhand smoke in half the surveyed casinos was enough to impair the heart’s ability to pump blood, placing casino patrons and workers at acute risk of heart disease. The study was a continuation of earlier research at 36 California casinos and 30 in other states.
About 8 percent of people between ages 45 and 64, and 20 percent of those above 65, have coronary heart disease. In 2009, the Institute of Medicine released a report indicating that secondhand smoke increases the risk of coronary heart disease by 25 to 30 percent. That same year, a report in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that 6 out of every 10,000 casino workers in Pennsylvania will die each year from secondhand smoke exposure. That compares with 1.2 deaths per 10,000 mine workers in the state. Smoky casinos have 50 times more cancer-causing particles in the air “than highways and city streets clogged with diesel trucks in rush-hour traffic,” says Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights.
Patrons of San Diego–area Indian casinos tend to be older, says Symington. “Most casinos are sensitive to their guests. You see people there with oxygen tanks.”
So San Diego casinos have made some strides, says Susan Jensen of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association in Sacramento. Valley View, Sycuan, and Pala have enclosed nonsmoking gambling rooms. Viejas has a nonsmoking poker area, Barona has a nonsmoking poker room, and Harrah’s Rincon has a nonsmoking area on the casino floor. Some are accessible from the outside, and in others the patron has to walk through the smoking area to get to the nonsmoking location. But no San Diego–area Indian casino is smoke-free, so dangerous particulates can find their way into nonsmoking areas.
The smoke-filled casino floors annoy many visitors. On Yelp.com, where consumers rate restaurants, entertainment venues, and the like, one woman from Boston called Viejas “a smoke pit.” The casino room “smelled like heaven’s ash tray.” She added, “I feel like I should go to the ER for an x-ray of my chest. Seriously, I think I got lung cancer in one hour.” Other San Diego casinos get similar stinky reviews, but few are as harsh as hers.
Some casinos, such as Pechanga, boast about their air-circulation/ventilation systems. “Ventilation systems may improve odor, but do not remove the serious health risks caused by secondhand smoke exposure,” says Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights. “Casino workers even in a ‘well-ventilated’ casino have [metabolized nicotine] levels 300 percent to 600 percent higher than employees in other smoking workplaces during a work shift.”
Dhaliwal of California’s Clean Air Project is holding a seminar on Indian casino smoking February 1 at the Morongo Casino near Palm Springs. A smoke-free environment is good for customers and good for employees and their health benefits. It also reduces “cleaning and maintenance costs,” she says. “My hope is that tribal casinos will go smoke-free rather than have designated nonsmoking areas. We are making headway."