Nelson wants casino smoking ban lifted

Deadwood casinos that have blamed the smoking ban for a loss in revenue over the past year could get a break if state Sen. Tom Nelson, R-Lead, gets his way.

Nelson has drafted legislation that will exempt Deadwood casinos from the smoking ban.

The voter-approved ban that was enacted in November 2010 is being blamed for a drop in gambling revenue, which is the main reason an exemption should be considered, according to the state senator.

“The smoking ban has been devastating to gaming revenue,” Nelson said. “The governor in his address said gaming revenue was down because of the smoking ban.”

Casino owners were hoping revenue would bounce back quickly once the ban was implemented, but it has not, Nelson said.

Total gambling revenue last month was 6.87 percent higher than revenue in November 2010, when the ban was first passed. But it was one of the few months in 2011 in which revenue was up year over year. Overall, gambling brought in $99.7 million from January to November in 2010 compared to $93.7 million over the same time period in 2011.

On principle, businesses should be able to decide whether they want to allow smoking, Nelson said.

“It needs to be a business decision regardless,” he said.

The exemption would affect the gambling floor only; the ban would remain at restaurants and bars, he said.

Though Nelson recognizes the health concerns that helped pass the ban last year, he believes voters would still have passed the ban even if a gambling exemption had been worked into the bill.

“It’s a health issue, and nobody’s going to argue that. I agree 1,000 percent that second-hand smoke is bad,” he said. But “if Deadwood exemptions had been (in the ban), it would have passed by the same margin.”

Cleo Snow, general manager of Miss Kitty’s casino, agreed that the smoking ban has hurt business.

“I’ve noticed a drop in people that come,” Snow said. “Everybody thought we’d get all the non-smokers. They didn’t come.”

Many gamblers are looking for a complete gambling experience, according to Snow.

“A drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other hand and pushing a button, all go hand in hand,” she said.

Snow acknowledges the atmosphere of a smoke-free room is appealing.

“I love the smell of it not being smoky in here, but we need people coming back,” she said. “You don’t want to stand outside in sub-zero weather to smoke.”

At least one casino worker likes the smoke-free environment in Deadwood.

Marty Weissinger, who has worked in the gambling industry for 21 years, is a slot tech and bartender at Deadwood Gulch. He prefers an environment where children don’t have to inhale smoke and where gamblers don’t drop cigarette butts on the floor, he said.

“Everybody has a right to smoke as far as that goes, but there’s two sides of a coin. Everybody has a right to not be breathing secondhand smoke,” he said.

The legislation would also exempt service, fraternal and veteran’s organizations with liquor licenses.

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