The state released its monthly casino revenue report Monday, and Harrah’s New Orleans Casino wasted no time pointing to a 16 percent decline in its revenue that it said can be directly attributed to the citywide smoking ban that went into effect April 22.
Harrah’s reported it had more visitors in May than it did that same month last year, but its gambling revenue dropped from $28.8 million to $24.1 million.
The casino said the numbers for the last nine days in April were also down 15 percent after holding their own that month right up until the ban went into effect.
Looking at it another way, the casino won $59.39 from each visitor in May, down from $69.09 in that month last year.
“While still very early, we believe the majority of the revenue decline is to be attributed to the smoking ban,” Harrah’s spokeswoman Jade Brown Russell said.
“We are currently experiencing greater declines from our local business, while casinos in surrounding jurisdictions are enjoying record highs,” she said.
Harrah’s didn’t offer specifics about how it believes the ban is affecting its business. Russell said the decline came in all segments but that slot-machine revenue is being hit disproportionately hard.
That theory makes sense to Erin Shirley, of Dallas, a former New Orleans resident back in town Monday to play the slots with a friend.
“You do have to stop the game” to go outside to smoke, she said. “And once you’re playing, you don’t want to leave. You don’t go back to the same spot, usually, and that’s the problem.”
Shirley said she could easily see a smoke break turning into an impromptu decision to go find something else to do.
“Our chances of leaving Harrah’s definitely increase because we have to come out to smoke,” she said.
The women had been playing for only two hours but already had gone outside three times to smoke, an interruption they never experienced on previous visits.
“We would stay in there forever,” Shirley recalled of visits before the ban. “We would go in early in the morning and (come out) and say, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s night.’ ”
Shirley said she sees both sides of the debate over the smoking ban but feels smoking and gambling just go hand in hand. “Nobody wants to stop playing a game, no matter what it is,” she said, equating it to sports. “You’re involved in something.”
The women said they also noticed they were being counted each time they returned to the floor, which might account for the higher customer count in May.
Harrah’s was a vocal critic of the smoking ban passed unanimously by the New Orleans City Council in January, warning that its revenue might drop by as much as 20 percent. It sought to have at least part of the casino exempted from the ban — like cigar and hookah bars and existing e-cigarette retailers that allow vaping — but failed.
Harrah’s lobbyists later worked the Legislature — albeit unsuccessfully — to pressure the city to back off the ban, and it was one of more than 50 companies that filed suit against the city a few days before the ban went into effect. Harrah’s ended up pulling out of the suit, saying it wanted to focus on getting ready to comply with the ban.
The revenue decline was not exactly a surprise.
State regulators reported in December that the state stood to lose just over $100 million in revenue and fees over two years from Harrah’s, the Fair Grounds racetrack and video poker halls if the ban passed.
But the decline is not likely to change any minds in Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration or on the City Council. City officials have continued to insist that the health of workers and patrons outweighs any negative financial impact and that Harrah’s is simply too large an employer to be exempted.
In March, Harrah’s floated the idea of partitioning the casino to allow for smoking in part of the building and said it might seek to renegotiate its lease with the city — which owns the land under the casino — to account for the expected decline in business.
Both ideas received a chilly response, with Landrieu’s administration saying it does not believe the ban opens the door to renegotiating the lease.
On Monday, Harrah’s once again sounded a note of cooperation while signaling hope that there is still room to negotiate.
“We remain focused on complying with the ordinance, while remaining fully supportive of the state’s directive for Harrah’s and the city to work on a compromise that balances the fiscal impacts with the public health and safety concerns,” Russell said.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.