Casinos have been mounting their defenses against a proposed ban on smoking in casinos and bars, noting how much money they — and the city-parish — stand to lose if the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council votes Wednesday to enact the prohibition.
Tuesday was the first time since the smoke-free campaign launched in January that leaders of all three casinos have publicly opposed the smoking ban proposal, which the council will take up at its 4 p.m. meeting.
But leaders of the smoke-free campaign say they plan to bring out their supporters in full force in an effort to show that the majority of residents in East Baton Rouge Parish prefer smoke-free casinos and bars.
The smoke-free supporters need one more council vote to get the seven-member majority to permanently burn out cigarettes and other smoking devices in casinos and bars. Six Metro Council members — Joel Boé, Tara Wicker, Donna Collins-Lewis, Chauna Banks-Daniel, Erika Green and LaMont Cole — are sponsoring the proposed ordinance.
The other six either have not committed to a position on the proposed ban or are leaning against it, siding with the rights of business owners and calling the proposal a government overreach.
Some on the council have pointed out the city-parish depended on casinos to foot $9.8 million in its $830 million budget last year, coming from percentages of net gaming proceeds from L’Auberge Casino and Hotel, Hollywood Casino and Belle of Baton Rouge Casino and Hotel.
Stasha Rhodes, the Smoke-free East Baton Rouge campaign manager, said, “Hopefully, there’s one more council person that’s willing to put the health of the people and the will of the employees first.”
Smoke-free East Baton Rouge has amassed support from nonprofits ranging from hospitals to the American Cancer Society to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. The groups have helped pour around $300,000 into an advertising campaign supporting the proposed ban.
The casinos have not been advertising for their position, but they have met with council members. L’Auberge representatives warned the political leaders that they expect a 20 percent revenue drop-off if customers can no longer smoke while they play. And that drop-off would have a ripple effect in the local economy.
“We talk about the taxes, we also must talk about procurement,” said Mickey Parenton, senior vice president of operations and general manager of L’Auberge. “Eighty percent of our procurement is in Louisiana. With less business, we might buy less.”
Parenton also warned that less business could result in less money in tips going to employees whom the smoke-free ordinance intends to protect. He said 60 percent of L’Auberge’s employees are salaried but also work for tips.
He added that L’Auberge employees regularly fill out surveys about their job environments, and in those surveys, he has not received complaints about smoke. He said less than 20 percent of L’Auberge is a smoking environment, as smoking is allowed on the playing floor but prohibited in the restaurants, hotel and other areas.
Joel Loots, the spokesman for Hollywood Casino, said a smoking ban would put Baton Rouge’s casinos at a competitive disadvantage with nearby casinos that allow smoking, such as those in Lake Charles and Marksville and in Biloxi, Mississippi.
“Those kind of go hand in hand,” Loots said. “People who tend to game, a lot of them are smokers.”
Tropicana Entertainment Inc., which owns the Belle of Baton Rouge, put out a statement Tuesday noting the Belle paid more than $16 million in taxes to the city and state in 2015.
“We believe in progressive change,” wrote Tropicana Entertainment President and CEO Tony Rodio. “However, we believe the detriments to our business and employees, and the decline of state and local tax revenues that would result from such a ban, exceed the potentially positive effects of such a ban, and urge the Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council to reject the proposal.”
Bronson Frick, associate director of the national nonprofit Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, said the doomsday scenarios casinos are presenting are not consistent with the success of smoke-free casinos elsewhere.
More than 800 casinos and gaming facilities across the country do not allow smoking, Frick said.
He said casinos in states where smoking has been banned in such establishments have been able to accommodate customers who wish to smoke by installing outdoor patios, some of which include gaming machines.
Frick predicted L’Auberge is easily poised to become smoke-free because it already has a strong emphasis on non-gambling revenue drivers, like concerts, meetings and restaurants. He also said Hollywood and the Belle’s riverboats have outdoor areas where patrons could smoke if they can’t inside the casino.
“They already have decks built in,” Frick said. “The nice thing, particularly for the Hollywood and the Belle, is that they can add smoking outdoors to all the different deck levels. They still have to put thought into it, but they won’t have to start from scratch.”
Pinnacle Entertainment, which owns L’Auberge, built a casino in Ohio, where smoking in casinos is banned. Frick said Ohio’s success has shown that being smoke-free does not have to be a barrier for casinos to break into the market.
But Troy Stremming, Pinnacle’s executive vice president of government relations and public affairs, said Ohio was different. Up there, he said, Pinnacle entered a market where the rules were set, there was a demand for gaming and everyone was on the same playing field. In Baton Rouge, Stremming said, a smoking ban would put L’Auberge, the newest of the three casinos, on an uneven playing field because it’s just gaining momentum.
“The last three-and-a-half years, Baton Rouge has had a very, very stable business environment,” Stremming said. “Now, changing the rules, if this ordinance were to pass, we think would have a huge detrimental impact.”
Editor’s note: This article was changed on Wednesday, April 13, to note that Tropicana Entertainment, Inc., owner of the Belle of Baton rouge, paid more than $16 million in taxes to the city and state in 2015.