Unaffected by Smoking Ban, Two Wisconsin Casinos Still Go Smoke-Free
Monday, July 5, 2010
Tribally owned casinos and gaming areas are among the few remaining workplaces where Wisconsin residents can light up, although at least two area gaming facilities have banned smoking.
The indoor smoking ban that goes into effect today bans smoking in most enclosed places, but does not apply to tribal casinos or gaming facilities because of tribes' sovereign immunity. The ban also doesn't apply to specialty tobacco stores established before June 2009 or private residences.
On June 1, the Oneida Tribe of Indians made two of its remote gaming locations smoke-free as part of an effort to improve the air quality for its employees and customers and to test the financial ramifications of a smoking ban.
"It's purely coincidental that we implemented a ban at the same time as the state initiative," said Kathy Hughes, vice chairman of the tribe's business committee. "At this time I don't see it going on to the main casino. We are really looking at the outlets as trials to see what effect it has."
The business committee introduced legislation to make two gaming locations — the Oneida One Stops at W180 Wisconsin 54 and 790 Brown County EE — smoke-free in June. In 90 days, the tribe will evaluate the change, although there are no plans to go smoke-free in the tribe's main casino on Airport Drive.
"Gaming revenue is the tribe's lifeblood," Hughes said. "We're already seeing an impact from the economy, so we don't want to do anything else that is going to cause a greater negative effect on that."
The One Stops are convenience stores and gas stations with gaming areas attached. The tribe operates several on its reservation, which straddles both Brown and Outagamie counties.
So far, the Wisconsin 54 location has retained most of its customers, while there has been a drop at the County EE location, said Oneida Casino & Bingo general manager Louise Cornelius. But some gaming machines were moved out of the EE location, so a more thorough analysis will have to be done down the line, Cornelius said.
"(The analysis) is really preliminary at this point," Cornelius said. "We want clean air for our customers and employees, but we're expected to generate revenue. We have to balance those interests."
If the Oneidas want to remain competitive with other Wisconsin casinos where smoking is allowed, Cornelius said they have to consider keeping smoking. The top level of the casino on Mason Street has always been smoke-free and there is a nonsmoking section in the main casino.
"We look at it as an opportunity to see what our customers and employees want," Cornelius said. "Some customers we might lose, others went over to a location with smoking."
The casino plans to survey its customers. The more than 60 gaming and retail employees in the two smoke-free locations have already responded positively to the change, Cornelius said.
Other Northeastern Wisconsin casinos have no plans for a smoking ban.
The North Star Mohican Casino in Bowler, which is operated by the Stockbridge-Munsee tribe, has smoke-free gaming areas and invested in a new airflow system in its smoking areas during the construction of its new facility. But they're not planning to go completely smoke free.
"The air system pushes the heat and the AC up from the floor," general manager Michael Olujic said. "Smoke naturally rises, and it is exhausted out by the ceiling. The air quality of our smoking area is almost as good as a smoke-free environment."
The Menominee Casino and Resort in Keshena, which is undergoing an expansion, will have a smoke-free area off the regular gaming floor and some other nonsmoking areas in its restaurant and hotel.
"The rest of the casino will remain smoking," general manager James Reiter said. "It would be up to our tribal government to change that. Whatever they pass is what we would follow."
By Malavika Jagannathan
July 5, 2010