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Jun 14, 2010 8:35 PM by Chris Welty

'Free Cocktails?' A Dying Call at Casinos

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - The quintessential Las Vegas or Atlantic
City casino experience comes with card dealers in ties,
feather-festooned showgirls and the most coveted amenity: the free
drink.
Yet as casino gambling has migrated from America's storied
gambling towns to middle America, the complimentary cocktail hasn't
always survived the trip.
The reasons are sometimes moral, sometimes economic. The new
generation of casinos faces varying guidelines established by local
legislators who didn't always support their arrival.
Paying for drinks has left lovers of the freebie, like Lynette
Gross of Indiana, bummed.
"It just makes it more fun. It's one less thing you have to pay
for," said Gross, who has visited casinos in Indiana and Las
Vegas. "I don't think it makes you drink more. It's just a nice
perk."
A new Ohio law puts the state's up-and-coming casinos - just
approved by voters in the fall - among those that don't allow
complimentary cocktails. Other Midwestern states - Missouri,
Illinois, Indiana and Kansas - don't allow their casinos to offer
free alcohol, says the American Gaming Association.
Of 13 states where non-Indian, non-racetrack casinos are
operating, nine - Nevada, New Jersey, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana,
Michigan, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and South Dakota - allow
casinos to serve free booze. In three of those, most casinos don't
take advantage, the association says.
The Ohio chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving was among
groups that pushed for strict alcohol standards at Ohio casinos.
The law, signed by Gov. Ted Strickland on Thursday, bans both free
drinks and 24-hour liquor sales at casinos, stopping them at 2:30
a.m., the same as bars.
Doug Scoles, executive director of MADD's Ohio chapter, thinks
the free drink bans reflect old-fashioned Midwest values.
"I don't want to stereotype," Scoles said, "but I do believe
Midwest culture supports not serving alcohol freely, on a 24/7
basis. It's seen for the damage it does to communities."
For Kansas, like some other Midwestern states, free drinks at
casinos weren't even an option: They're banned at establishments
statewide. The state has a long history of alcohol restrictions,
including statewide bans on happy hour specials and drinking games,
such as beer pong.
"I'm sure it came out of the Prohibition era, the temperance
and moderation," said Tom Groneman, head of Kansas' liquor control
agency. "As a matter of fact, in Kansas we don't allow happy
hours. You have to have happy days."
The economic interests of other businesses also play a part.
Restaurants, bars and taverns are among groups that have lobbied
legislatures for laws preventing new casinos from offering free
alcohol. It's a business issue, not a moral one, said Jarrod
Clabaugh, spokesman for the Ohio Restaurant Association.
"We were concerned it would create an uneven playing field,"
Clabaugh said. "Free drinks improve the odds of people not leaving
the casinos to go out, enjoy the community and dine at our
members."
Last year, the Illinois Casino Gaming Association even fought
back one of its own. A riverboat casino was pushing a change in
state law that would have allowed free drinks exclusively at its
floating gambling house. The company argued complimentary cocktails
would boost patronage in the wake of a statewide smoking ban.
As states new to casino gaming, like Ohio, weigh in on free
drinks, even casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City are scaling
back to cut costs.
The 38 Vegas resorts reported comping $310.7 million in drinks
in fiscal year 2009, a 2 percent drop from the previous year. Total
comps in Atlantic City - including drinks, meals, hotel rooms and
entertainment - fell 5 percent in 2009, to $1.55 billion.
The increasingly elusive free drink doesn't mean booze is losing
its popularity at casinos. Casinos sell more alcohol when they stop
giving it away, according to industry data. And some are adding or
expanding their alcohol offerings.
Harrah's Cherokee in North Carolina got permission from voters
last year to add alcohol sales to its previously dry casino.
Turning Stone in upstate New York won a state liquor license in May
that will make alcohol more widely available throughout its
facilities. And Fire Rock, a Navajo-run casino in New Mexico, now
serves alcohol though sales and possession of it are prohibited
across most of the 27,000-square-mile reservation.
Alcohol profits weren't worth the tradeoff in potential alcohol
abuse for the operators of Golden Buffalo Resort and Casino in
South Dakota, however. The Sioux tribe there banned alcohol
reservation-wide last year, including at the casino.

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