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October 19, 2017

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Poker pro urges casino smoking ban

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A career poker player who pushed for smoking bans in poker rooms and tournaments is now leading a fight to prohibit smoking on casino floors across Nevada.

Tom McEvoy is the public face for a new grass-roots group, Gamblers Against Secondhand Smoke, which is pushing for a ban in the last bastion for smokers.

A Las Vegas man who has spent 30 years playing poker for a living, McEvoy isn’t exactly a mainstream celebrity. But if smoking is banned in Nevada casinos, as some advocates say is inevitable, he may become the gaming equivalent of the Marlboro man who campaigned against cigarettes.

He isn’t a paid advocate but a Stetson-wearing gambler who has hosted poker tournaments and written poker books. He’s on a first-name basis with casino executives. And he is prepared, he says, to fight a culture war with an inherently conservative industry so afraid of change it is willing to risk the health of its patrons and employees.

“I love Las Vegas. I love gaming. I’m not anti-casino. I’m anti-smoking in the casino,” he said. “This is actually going to help the industry in the long run.”

At first, McEvoy was upset about having to quit poker games because of allergic reactions to smoke. His outrage grew, he says, after the deaths of poker friends, including a nonsmoker, from smoke-related illnesses.

McEvoy is outspoken where health groups are careful. He is passionate where groups such as the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association and the Southern Nevada Health District are politically correct.

These groups supported a partial smoking ban in 2006 that exempted casino floors, which was viewed as a first step toward a complete ban.

Health groups have been quiet about such efforts. Though workers have advocated casino bans in other states, notably in Atlantic City casinos, employees have been silent here for fear of losing their jobs.

After the rapid spread of smoking bans in poker rooms, McEvoy set his sights on casino floors.

Gamblers Against Secondhand Smoke is the brainchild of Stephanie Steinberg, a gambler who was instrumental in getting smoking banned in Colorado casinos in January and who pushed for the ban in Atlantic City casinos.

Steinberg, who drafted McEvoy, isn’t a professional lobbyist or advocate either.

Her efforts began several years ago after conversations with casino workers in Colorado who said they didn’t want to work around smoke but were afraid to speak up. She founded Smoke-Free Gaming of Colorado, a coalition of casino workers and residents.

In 1999, McEvoy pushed for the first major smoke-free poker tournament in Las Vegas. He was also involved in an effort to ban smoking at the World Series of Poker, which went smoke-free in 2004. (McEnvoy won the World Series’ main event in 1983.)

Casinos have resisted smoking bans on the ground that they would lose business from gamblers who smoke. But the battleground goes beyond economics. The notion that gambling, drinking and smoking go hand-in-hand, and Nevada’s libertarian, live-and-let-live culture combined with Las Vegas’ escapist image appear to be tough obstacles.

“Casinos are afraid to offend the minority,” McEvoy said. “That’s being shortsighted. They’re on the wrong side of this issue and they know it.”

Attendance at the World Series of Poker and other tournaments has increased, in part because of the smoking bans, poker experts say.

“Tom was ultimately proven right,” said Nolan Dalla, media director of the World Series of Poker.

Dalla, a nonsmoker, was one of many gaming insiders who thought business would suffer if players were forced to walk outside for a smoke. So he and hundreds of tournament employees and players endured what observers dubbed “the World Series of Poker sickness” — the coughing, sneezing and weakened immune system that occurred after spending weeks in smoke-filled rooms.

Players — even smokers — complained by writing letters and confronting management.

Casino executives have a standard response to a total smoking ban: They already accommodate smokers and nonsmokers with smoke-free hotel rooms and other areas, such as banks of slot machines and individual tables.

“The industry says don’t mess with success, especially during these economic down times,” Dalla said. “Do we want to implement something that could drive away a certain percentage of business?”

Smoking is more of a problem in enclosed poker rooms, Dalla said, and smoke tends to dissipate better on the larger, high-ceilinged casino floor.

McEvoy said that’s not true for dealers and bartenders who breathe smoky air for hours on end. So, Gamblers Against Secondhand Smoke is spreading its smoking ban message primarily among casino workers — the people most affected by secondhand smoke.

The group has already enlisted the support of several casino dealers on the Strip, including Mario Ragazzo.

“The vast majority of gamblers don’t smoke, and those who do aren’t necessarily our best customers,” Ragazzo said. “But all casinos know is the status quo. Unless you put pressure on people, they’re not going to change.”

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