A Casino Smoking ban is a winner

Last night I ate the best pizza in Sydney. I was in an unfashionable Calabrian restaurant in the suburbs, where boomboxed cars burned doughnuts in the street outside. Since six weeks before the Olympics, New South Wales law has said people can’t smoke inside restaurants. Every few minutes, a tattooed player at the pool table, or a burly tradesman in his working clothes wolfing pizza, or a tizzed-up, bare-midriffed ragazza would go out to the footpath to smoke. It was as if it had always been this way.

There were no “smoking police” tapping them on the shoulder to move outdoors. There were no complaints from management, and there were certainly none from the many family groups and stray yuppies eating inside.

From July1, Victoria will get an overdue taste of the same when the Bracks Government implements a similar ban. But there may be one interesting difference. Steve Bracks says the ban may not apply to the casino and pubs. For all the welcome support Bracks has given to efforts to reduce smoking, he has apparently been blindsided on this one and is taking early steps in the familiar political game of trying to be half-pregnant. In Arnold Schwarzenegger’s immortal line from Pumping Iron, somebody has given him the bad advices.

The gaming tables in all but two small high-roller rooms at Sydney’s casino have been smoke-free from day one of the NSW ban. Half of the poker-machine areas are also nominally smoke-free, although some smoke drifts across the magic line from the smoking areas. Jupiter’s in Queensland and Burswood in Perth have indicated they will soon move to smoke-free main gaming areas. So has casino management outside Melbourne lost its financial marbles?

Sydney’s casino is not on the skids. High-rollers still roll in. The same sad scene of mass robotic “fun” greets the visitor. But there’s one difference. Sydney casino staff and patrons get a greatly reduced dose of passive smoking. For staff, this is of great occupational health significance. For litigation lawyers, it’s money gone west.

A March 2000 report for the Victorian Casino and Gaming Authority found gambling machine players were almost twice as likely to be smokers as those who never played, and that gambling smokers spent twice as much on tobacco as smokers who didn’t gamble. But Sydney’s experience shows that if you ban smoking, it makes little difference: the mug punters keep on coming – and go outside to smoke. Importantly, for some in a gambling trance, this might be a critical break that pours a shock of cold water on their addiction. I’m out of here.

The most intriguing data, however, comes from a January 2000 Auspoll study commissioned by none other than Philip Morris. Only 14per cent of smokers said they would attend gaming clubs more if smoking was banned, and 60per cent said it would make no difference. But an astonishing 48per cent of non-smokers thought they would attend more. Given that there are three times more non-smokers than smokers, banning smoking would appear to mean a jackpot of new gamblers might pour into casinos.

So if Bracks’ baulking at banning smoking in the casino is anything to do with appeasing the Packers and his Treasurer, someone has led him up the path. It reeks instead of a diet of spin put on smoking bans by the tobacco industry. The big losers in smoking bans are the tobacco industry. Workplace smoking bans cut 24-hour smoking by 20per cent, which translates into hundreds of million of dollars forgone and a reduction in smoking unparalleled by any other strategy.

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