The 1st January deadline to designate 50% of Macau’s casino floors as non-smoking areas is looming, and although the crucial issue of how VIP rooms are to be treated remains unanswered, as Cláudia Aranda reports, pragmatism will likely prevail
A dispatch from Macau’s chief executive published in the Official Gazette on 30th October finally offered some much-awaited guidelines to local casinos, who are required by law to designate at least 50% of their floor space as non-smoking areas by the 1st of January. Critically, however, the dispatch failed to offer clear details on how VIP gaming areas—where about 70% of Macau’s gross gaming revenue is generated—are to be treated.
Macau’s Regime of Tobacco Prevention and Control (Law nº5/2011), which came into effect on 1st January this year, bans smoking inside most public venues. A grace period was given to establishments where the ban was likely to have the most profound deleterious impact on revenue. Bars, nightclubs, saunas and massage establishments have until January 2015 to set themselves up to comply with the indoor smoking ban. Casinos, on the other hand, will be allowed to maintain smoking areas across up to 50% of their floor space, though they only have until the beginning of 2013 to comply.
The crucial question casinos were left in the dark about as the clock ticked down on the 1st January deadline was how the smoking areas had to be delineated. The major fear was that smoking and nonsmoking areas would have to be physically separated by walls, which would have destroyed the sightlines across many casinos, especially those where the bulk of the gaming floor sits across a single, expansive area.
While the dispatch requires non-smoking and smoking areas in new casinos to be located in physically separated areas (either by a wall or placing them on different levels within the building), the rules are more flexible with regard to existing casinos, those already under construction, and those that have already received a construction permit from the Land, Public Works and Transport Bureau (DSSOPT). These are all considered “existing casinos,” according to the head of the Health Bureau, Lei Chin Ion. Phase II of Galaxy Macau, for example, is considered an existing casino.
Rather than having to impose physical barriers, existing casinos can implement transition zones between smoking and non-smoking areas, in the form of either areas with strong ventilation systems or a four-meter cordon. They can also utilize “air curtains” or install physical barriers at least two meters high between the two areas. Casinos will have to submit their plans for complying with the new regulations to the Health Bureau by 1st January for approval.
Despite the looming 1st January deadline for implementation, all the casino operators spoken to by Inside Asian Gaming express confidence that they will be able to smoothly implement the new rules. Mr Lei, meanwhile, stressed, “We are confident the concessionaires will have enough time.”
Still in the Dark on VIP Rooms
Although the 30th October Official Gazette provided much relief to casino operators, it failed to offer clarity on how VIP rooms are to be treated. Strictly speaking, VIP rooms could be considered mini casinos, because they contain their own cages, in which case each should contain its own smoke-free zone. It’s more likely, though, that VIP rooms will be counted as part of a property’s total gaming area. The probable result, then, is that almost all of them will remain smoking areas, with a greater proportion of the main floor designated as non-smoking.
The very ambiguity created by the failure to distinguish between VIP rooms and main gaming areas means they will by default be considered the same. “There is a maxim in law, according to which, where a law makes no distinctions an interpreter should not distinguish either” explains Jorge Godinho, associate professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Macau. “My interpretation is that the law leaves room for casino concessionaires to allocate the 50% in a flexible manner, as they may see fit,” he adds. From a legal point of view, “VIP rooms do not have a specific treatment for the purpose of smoking restrictions. A distinction does exist for some other purposes, such as taxation and statistics, but Law 5/2011 does not make a distinction between VIP rooms and the mass-market areas,” stressed Mr Godinho.
Even in health-conscious Australia, pragmatism prevails with regard to VIP gaming. In New South Wales, a ban on smoking in all enclosed areas of restaurants, licensed clubs and pubs came into force in July 2007, but an exception was made and remains in place for the private gaming areas (VIP rooms) in Sydney’s Star casino
Ongoing Monitoring and Workers’ Health
According to the dispatch in the Official Gazette, casino operators are required to monitor the air quality within their smoking areas and submit a monthly report to the Health Bureau, which will also conduct regular checks. An air quality report should also be posted beside the smoking signs. In case the concentration of pollutants in the smoking area is higher than the standards stated in the Official Gazette dispatch, the companies will have “an appropriate period” to fix the issue.
The Health Bureau also published on 31st October guidelines for the prevention of diseases and protection of workers’ health while carrying out their jobs in smoking areas of casinos. Among workers who are not allowed to work in smoking areas are pregnant women, women who have given birth within three months, and workers with cardiac or respiratory illnesses. For other staff there will be a mandatory rotation system between smoking and non-smoking areas.
Three local casino workers’ associations have expressed concern that the nonsmoking areas will be set predominantly in areas of slot machines, where the concentration of staff is low, rather than in areas of gaming tables. They want the dispatch to stipulate that at most half of a casino’s gaming tables can be included within its smoking area. According to Health Bureau legal advisor Rui Amaral, “the number of gaming tables in smoking areas will be taken into account while reviewing the requests.”
Casino operators who fail to comply with the government dispatch and guidelines may have their smoking areas reduced or even taken away.
The government’s policy aim is for casinos to be entirely smoke-free in the long run. The government will assess the current regulations’ effectiveness in three years’ time in order to determine whether the law needs to be amended, which could happen after 2015.
The issue of smoking bans in casinos has generated fierce debate in various major gaming jurisdictions, and the pro-smoking lobby has generally prevailed. In Nevada, casino floors remain one of the few indoor public venues where smoking is allowed. In 2008, Atlantic City in New Jersey—a state where smoking in other public areas is also largely banned—scrapped plans to impose a partial smoking ban in its casinos in the wake of the fallout from the financial crisis. This despite the much lower prevalence of smoking among casino visitors in the US than in Macau. About 20% of adults
in the US smoke, compared to 50% in mainland China—the source of 57% of Macau’s 28 million visitor arrivals last year.
Even rules-obsessed Singapore exempted the casino areas—though not the other public areas—at its two integrated resorts from the city-state’s wide-ranging indoor smoking ban, while requiring the IRs to implement their own internal policies regarding smoke-free zones. Singapore’s decision not to include the issue in national legislation is perhaps motivated by an appreciation of the difficulty of delineating smoking and non-smoking areas within an expansive main-gaming floor, as well as the understanding that a large proportion of gamblers in Asia like to smoke. Given the passion for gambling among Chinese players, however, the smart money says the new casino smoking regulations in Macau are unlikely to have a significant impact on revenue. And in any case, smokers who gamble will continue to have access to plenty of areas where they can do both in Macau.