COCONUT CREEK — One casino boasts that it is endorsed by the American Lung Association. Its main competitor has so much smoke that patrons sometimes wear surgical masks.
Guess which one is making the most money?
Sometimes the amenity that swings players to choose one casino over another has nothing to do with gambling. It's whether the casino allows smoking.
Under a 2003 state constitutional amendment, Florida's horse tracks, dog tracks and jai alai frontons must be nonsmoking. But the Seminole Tribe of Florida casinos are on sovereign ground and allow it. The debut last month of blackjack at the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek and Seminole Hollywood Classic introduced many South Florida gamblers to the tribe's two smokiest casinos.
But in the casino business, smoking is an advantage.
"Gamblers like to smoke and drink while they gamble," said Harvey Perkins of Spectrum Gaming, a gambling consulting company in Linwood, N.J. "You've got three co-dependent bad behaviors that go together."
It's working at the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek. Although the Seminole Tribe is not required to divulge revenues, management took out an ad this month that crowed about business. The gist of it: Coconut Creek does almost twice the business the Isle does. (And the Isle is easily the most successful of the five South Florida parimutuels with slots, according to state revenue figures.)
Smoking's role on the bottom line is an issue at casinos nationwide. In 2008, Atlantic City planned to ban smoking, but the casinos got a quick reversal, fearing a drop in business. The casinos were already being challenged because neighboring Pennsylvania and Connecticut were ramping up gambling.
In the Midwest, casinos in the nonsmoking state of Illinois say they're losing patrons across the rivers to Iowa, Missouri and Indiana, all of which allow smoking.
Loyal to their casino
Andrea Maniscalco, 58, of Boca Raton, said she's been playing slots at the Coconut Creek casino since it opened 10 years ago, often with a cigarette nearby.
"If luck is going my way, I don't want to have to get up and go outside to have a cigarette," Maniscalco said.
But for nonsmoker Alan Louis, of Fort Lauderdale, it's just too much.
"Been there once, and gagged," Louis said. "I won't go back."
Other nonsmokers put up with it, saying they have a better chance of winning at the Seminole casinos, or their friends go there, or they get more lucrative "comps" than they would get from the parimutuel casinos.
Among these is Erika Palmer of Hollywood, who said she just slips on a surgical mask when the Seminole Casino Hollywood Classic is busiest (i.e., smokiest). She's been hitting the slots for about 10 years.
"They treat me right here, and I've done okay," she said. "So it's not a big deal."
The Seminoles will continue to permit smoking but are improving the casinos for nonsmokers, spokesman Gary Bitner said. It's even mentioned in the compact signed between the tribe and the state this spring.
Among the terms: better ventilation and smoke-free areas at all new construction; nonsmoking tables (based on demand) at existing casinos; and the promise to designate nonsmoking areas at all casinos within five years.
Hard Rock in Hollywood has a no-smoking area, which sees less activity than the rest of the casino. The Coconut Creek and Hollywood Classic casinos do not.
But having nonsmoking areas next to smoking ones doesn't work because smoke travels, said Stephanie Steinberg, chairwoman of the nonprofit Smoke-Free Gaming.
Steinberg wants all casinos to be smoke-free, and she gathers data that suggests that casino operators overvalue smoking. She disagrees with industry experts, saying "smoking and gambling don't go hand in hand."
Blackjack dealers and other casino employees are especially affected because they spend so many hours absorbing secondhand smoke, she said.
Casino operators respond that ventilation systems have improved, and dealers at blackjack and other table games now work at ventilated tables, which keep the smoke away from them.
Lung Association logo
Meanwhile, the Isle Casino & Racing in Pompano Beach, which competes with the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek for north Broward and Palm Beach county gamblers, began running the American Lung Association's logo on its advertisements in June as a way to emphasize its smoke-free environment.
"When you have lemons, you try to make lemonade," Isle general manager Rob Wyre said.
The lung association's regional director, Paula Prendergast, called the partnership "a branding opportunity to raise awareness of the 33 million Americans currently suffering from lung disease."
"And we didn't have to pay anything," she said.
Gulfstream general manager Steve Calabro said that while smoking casinos do have an advantage, his employees enjoy working smoke-free. And because the Hallandale Beach casino is spread out over two floors, an exit to smoke is always less than a minute away.
"For most players, it's not a deal-breaker," he said.