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'Free cocktails?' a dying call at casinos

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.
Image: A cocktai server serves a free drink at a casino in Atlantic City,
Cocktail server Tina Jennetta places a drink in front of Eric Ng, of Fort Collins, Colo., at the Tropicana Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, N.J., in 2002. Donna Connor / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

Midwest values
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."

Kansas stands out even among Midwestern states; it forbids handing out free alcoholic drinks at any establishment. 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.

'Uneven playing field'
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 some of its own. A riverboat casino was pushing a change in state law that would have allowed free drinks exclusively in floating gambling houses. 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 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 it 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.