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Smoke-free casino in Oklahoma the exception in the area

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, April 28, 2013, at 5:30 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, July 10, 2013, at 9:44 a.m.

Searching for a way to stand out among the many tribal casinos in northern Oklahoma, the new Kaw Nation SouthWind Casino decided not to let customers smoke while they play the slot machines.

It opened smoke-free on April 6 in a small building with 72 slots in Kaw City, about 90 miles southeast of Wichita, and it has been receiving the thanks of grateful nonsmoking gamblers and health organizations ever since.

A letter from Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin expressing her appreciation for the state’s first 100 percent smoke-free casino hangs on a wall. An organization that combats second-hand smoke delivered a dozen T-shirts to the casino with its logo on them. The American Lung Association asked the casino to co-sponsor a fundraising event in Tulsa.

And just about every day, floor manager Cece Stevens is entertained by first-timers entering SouthWind.

“The first thing they do when they walk in the door is take a deep breath and say, ‘Ah, it smells so good in here,’ ” she said.

Gamblers from Oklahoma and Kansas, including Wichita and Hutchinson, have found their way to SouthWind, said Pam Shaw, general manager. Business is expected to grow when thousands of vacationers come to nearby Kaw Lake over the summer.

There were plenty of skeptics when plans for SouthWind to be smoke-free were announced. But, Shaw said, “it’s really doing great.”

In the first week, 918 people joined the casino’s players club. That number has grown to 2,598, even though the casino has no table games, poker room, restaurants or other amenities.

Mary Turnipseed, who owns a beauty shop in Arkansas City, was among a small group of gamblers trying their luck at the machines on a recent weekday afternoon. She goes to other casinos in Oklahoma as well.

“I like them, but sometimes the smoke, even with good ventilation, you go home and your clothes are smoky and your lungs are stopped up,” she said. “We still go, but it’s nice in a smokeless environment where you don’t have to put up with that.”

Don Rice, 63, one of the casino’s 19 employees, quit smoking five years ago after open-heart surgery. He worked at the Kaw’s larger SouthWind Casino in Newkirk at the time, and when he returned to work, the smoke irritated his lungs and gave him bronchitis, he said.

“It was just like smoking myself,” he said.

Rice said he hasn’t had any problems since he was transferred to the new casino.

Joleen Wilson, a nonsmoker from Ponca City, was making her first visit to the casino.

“It was nice not smelling smoke the minute you walk in. It’s a lot cleaner here,” she said. “I really enjoy it here. I would like to see this grow.”

Shaw said she hopes the smoke-free option catches on, but she doubts it will happen. The smallness of SouthWind and a desire to protect a tribal museum that shares the building with the casino helped with the decision to go smokeless.

“If this was a 1,200-game casino, I might be a little more apprehensive about it,” Shaw said.

“I would be sort of surprised if casinos in the whole state started going smoke-free,” she said, “but I would not be surprised to see other casinos start offering more areas where it is smoke-free.”

Smoking in Kansas casinos

Casinos in Kansas allow smoking. The Indoor Clean Air Act passed by the Legislature in 2010 exempted the three state-owned casinos from a ban on smoking it imposed on most other public places. Attempts to get rid of that exemption have failed, and no attempts are contemplated in the current session.

Rep. Dave Crum, R-Augusta, who replaced Brenda Landwehr as chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee, tried to repeal the exemption last year but failed. Leadership didn’t want to risk opening a debate on expanding gambling in the state, he said.

“You have to go into the casino statutes to affect the smoking ban, and any time you open the law, it opens the opportunity to expand casino gambling,” Crum said.

Opponents of allowing smoking in casinos cite the health hazards from second-hand smoke and say that exempting casinos from the ban gives them a competitive advantage over bars and clubs that can’t let customers smoke.

Crum said he thinks the exemption needs to be revisited at some point, but “right now, it’s difficult to advance that.”

Managers of the state-owned casinos, including Kansas Star, have fought attempts to ban smoking from their gaming floors, saying revenue would drop 10 to 30 percent, meaning less revenue for the state and local governments.

Boyd Gaming, which manages Kansas Star, tries to make its casinos inviting for nonsmokers as well as smokers and invests in state-of-the-art air-handling systems, said Carrie Tedore, a Boyd spokeswoman.

“As a general rule, the Boyd culture demands that we keep our casinos clean and fresh,” she said.

Effect on revenue

Kansas Star opened its permanent casino in December with a new $7 million ventilation system, which is more powerful than the system used when the casino opened in its arena facility the previous year, said Megan Strader, public relations manager. The new system is the same as that used by casinos in Las Vegas and exchanges the air inside the casino for fresh air every 10 minutes, she said.

Boyd operates one casino in a smoke-free state: Par-A-Dice in East Peoria, Ill. When Illinois went smokeless in 2008, the entire industry in the state fell drastically, Tedore said.

A 2009 study by economists with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that the smoking ban led to a 20 to 22 percent revenue decline in Illinois’ nine casinos, amounting to a total loss of more than $400 million in revenue and $200 million in tax dollars. Admissions dropped 12.3 percent, the study said.

Although the recession was hurting the industry nationwide at the time, the study found that drops in casino revenue in surrounding states that don’t ban smoking weren’t nearly as significant

Unlike the SouthWind Casino in Kaw City, SouthWind in Newkirk isn’t smoke-free, and there is no plan to change that, said Shaw, who is general manager at both facilities.

But the response to the Kaw City casino has been so positive that the tribe may consider expanding the smoke-free areas in the Newkirk casino, she said.

“If we had the opportunity to build another casino, is it something we would consider? Absolutely,” she said.

Reach Fred Mann at 316-268-6310 or fmann@wichitaeagle.com.

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