Prairie Meadows Casino could someday return to being a smoke-free casino. For now, though, the Iowa casino is just “almost smoke-free.”
Smokers can puff away in less than 5% of the Altoona casino. The ability to light up was reinstituted — but only in that small area — following a temporary smoking ban during the pandemic.
Prairie Meadows has no immediate plans to operate a 100% smoke-free casino. That could happen in the future, CEO Gary Palmer recently told Axios. “I wouldn’t rule it out,” he said.
Iowa Legislature, pandemic make call to be smoke-free
In 2008, the Iowa Legislature passed the Iowa Smokefree Air Act, which banned smoking in most public places. Iowa casinos argued that they would lose business to casinos in Illinois.
Ultimately, Iowa casino gaming areas received an exemption from the new law. But then came the pandemic and masking mandates.
Larry Wright, then-chairman of the Ponca Tribe that owns Prairie Flower Casino in Carter Lake, commented at the time of his casino’s smoking ban:
“It would be very difficult to enforce a 100% mask requirement when you have people in the casino smoking.”
Prairie Meadows Casino closed temporarily on March 16, 2020, laying off 1,130 employees. The casino stayed closed longer because it was in the top 10 regions countrywide experiencing COVID-19 spread. Palmer said there was “no playbook for this great challenge.” Palmer said that Prairie Meadows lost around $90 million during the pandemic lockdown in June 2020.
Then the casino reopened with masks, temperature checks, social distancing, and a no-smoking policy that same month. A few other state-licensed casinos and four Iowa tribal casinos went smoke-free:
- WinnaVegas in Sloan
- Meskwaki Bingo Casino in Tama
- Prairie Flower in Carter Lake
- Blackbird Bend in Onawa
Senator Janet Petersen of Des Moines called the adopted casino smoking bans “one silver lining of this horrible pandemic.” She had served as chairwoman of the committee that led the movement behind the 2008 law’s passage.
Smokes, slots go hand in hand at Iowa casinos
But eventually, as life went back to normal, WinnaVegas permitted smoking again. According to marketing manager Deana Whistler, the clientele requested that the casino bring back smoking.
Puffs and poker, smokes and slots, seem to go “hand in hand,” she told PlayIA.
“People come here to smoke and gamble.”
And now, Meskwaki Bingo Casino has a smoking area, and Blackbird Bend has reinstated smoking throughout its casino. Prairie Flower alone remains smoke-free; patrons can smoke inside or in a detached and enclosed smoking area that lacks gaming offerings.
Still, even though the smoke-free trend has been taking hold in casinos across the country, Iowa casinos remain exempt from the law. And they have resisted any proposed legislative alterations, even though the state passed the Smoke-Free Illinois Act in 2008, rendering their 2008 arguments less valid.
Iowa’s tribal casinos are a part of the movement toward smoke-free environments, according to RadioIowa.com.
Possibly fewer smokers at Iowa casinos
According to a 2022 report by WorldPopulation.com, 16.4% of Iowa adults smoke. Prairie Meadows CEO Palmer told Axios that his casino doesn’t track smoking among its customers. But he estimates the percentage who do partake has dropped from 60% to 25% over the past 20 years.
He also said that the air filtration systems installed during the pandemic keep smoke mostly in the designated area.
Wes Ehrecke, president and CEO of the Iowa Gaming Association, previously spoke on that subject when he appeared on Iowa PBS’s Iowa Press in 2021. He said that “casinos probably have some of the best filtration and ventilation systems around.”
He also said that it was essential to accommodate smokers and nonsmokers in a “quality environment.” Ehrecke continued, saying that smoking didn’t present a workplace safety issue and that “adults should be allowed to make adult decisions in adult venues.”
Ehrecke added that he hadn’t heard of any employee complaints and attributed that silence to ventilation and filtration.