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Is Smoking in Casinos a Thing of the Past? COVID Leads to Experiment

Visit any online discussion about cruising and you’ll find cruisers pontificating on smoking policies.  Most cruise lines only permit smoking in casinos, but this week, those cigarettes were extinguished.  Is this change permanent?  It depends on how this unintentional experiment goes.

While I don’t like the smell of cigarettes, a little part of me associates their smell with cruising.  See, I grew up cruising, and for many years, you could smoke almost anywhere on the ship.  Like on land though, attitudes towards smoking, and the number of smokers, changed a lot.  In time, very few places indoors on ships permitted smoking at all, and today, it’s pretty much just the casinos, and the occasional smoking lounge.  

Why Smoking Has Been Allowed in Many Cruise Ship Casinos

Very simply, casinos generate a lot of money for cruise lines.  If you’re not a gambler, but you take cruises, thank those folks in the casino as they subsidize our cruise vacations.  Many of those gamblers are also smokers, and by allowing smoking in casinos you can lure them into a place they can hang out, light up, and spend money.  Cruising is a business, on on most cruise lines, gambling is big business.

What About Non-Smokers Who Gamble?

In most of those online discussions I mentioned, you’ll find no shortage of people saying they’d spend more time in casinos if smoking wasn’t allowed.  They, like me, don’t like to be around the smoke, they don’t want their close smelling like smoke, but unlike me, they’d be prepared to hand turn cash into chips - if it wasn’t for all the smoking.

I don’t at all doubt that these folks mean what they say, but the consideration is that many other people, already spending time (and money) in ship casinos, might be inclined to spend a lot less money if they couldn’t smoke while playing cards, dice, or slots.  So how does the equation balance out?  It seems rather likely that cruise lines, and the companies they pay to run or organize their casinos, have a lot of data on how much different types of players “donate” to the casino.  For them to continue to allow smoking, even in 2021, probably means that they must have concluded that keeping the smokers happy is more important (profitable) than bringing in more non-smokers.  

Despite this data, there may not have been a good experiment to test theories derived from it - until now.

COVID Shuts Down Smoking

In mid December of 2021, the omicron COVID variant has infection rates up for a number of reasons, and cruise lines need to act quick to ensure they can keep guests safe, and cruises sailing.  For this reason, the three largest cruise companies in the world, among others, tightened rules about mask-wearing on ships, except when guests are actively eating or drinking. 

This means, of course, that you can’t have a mask off to smoke cigarettes.  So, at least four Carnival Corporation lines, plus Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Line, all announced that guests are not permitted to smoke in their ship’s casinos.

Celebrity Masks

The Experiment

Not all experiments are intentional.  In this case, we have entire fleets of cruise ships that have changed little about their operations and guest demographics, except for smoking rules as a consequence of mask enforcement.  For as long as these mask rules are in place, cruise lines will get to find out how much casino revenue changes.  If this continues for at least a few weeks (though I'd bet it lasts longer), it would seem that cruise lines will have significant insight into the impact of not allowing smoking.

The experiment won’t be perfect.  Cruise lines will have to correct for other variables when comparing casino revenue on these cruises to others.  Sailings in the past had more people and there may be slight demographic differences related to the many complications of the past twenty months.  Further, most casinos will still smell like smoke for a long time, unless or until the interiors are completely changed out - walking through a casino on embarkation day is a good demonstration of the lingering odor.

MSC Seaside Casino

No Royal Flush Needed

The experiment doesn’t have to be perfect for non-smokers to win.  Cruise lines could opt to keep casinos non-smoking even if the non-smoking crowd doesn’t have a winning hand.  Why would that make sense?  For one, cruise lines know that there will only be fewer smokers as time goes on, not more.  Further, they have the opportunity to increase guest satisfaction for those who may not even be gamblers, but don’t enjoy the smoke smell in nearby public areas.  In other words, even if casino revenue doesn’t increase during this time, a minimal loss could make the change still worth it, especially since they can be confident that over time, there will be fewer and fewer smokers on land and at sea.

Oceania Cruises Casino

This isn't new to some cruise lines.  Oceania Cruises and Celebrity Cruises have long had smoke-free casinos, as does the new Virgin Voyages.  These lines often attract guests that have more disposable income than contemporary lines like Carnival and Royal Caribbean, so that is another variable at play, and one reason we might not see all lines make the same long-term decisions.

Of course it’s also possible that most or all lines will see a big drop in onboard revenue, and as soon as COVID protocols can be adjusted, they’ll bring smoking right back.  The only thing that is certain is that not everyone will be happy, wherever the chips fall.