When it comes to politics, there are a lot of third-rail issues-topics such as taxes, gun control, or social security reform that are so charged, untouchable, or derisive that to even broach them is considered political suicide.

The gaming industry actually has its own set of third-rail issues--subjects that give it a black eye in the court of public opinion, and support the stereotype that casino operators are no more than uncaring monetary mercenaries. In this depressing realm, there is actually one topic that trumps all the others in public relations damage, an issue the legalized wagering community has a hard time justifying with a straight face.

And I’m not talking about problem or compulsive wagering. The gaming industry has actually done a great job getting in front of this issue, devoting million of dollars to research the disease and implement improved prevention and treatment programs.

No, the issue that most besmirches the casino operator community is smoking, and its continued enabling of the act despite the vast amount of evidence showing the harm it causes those who are exposed to second-hand tobacco smoke. While other industries across the nation and the world seek to eradicate smoking in the workplace, the casino community-specifically casino operators-either turn a blind eye or actively support measures to keep smoking legal in their facilities. The reason is simple-gambling and smoking genes appear to be linked, and oftentimes the most prolific gamblers are also heavy users of tobacco products.

So resorts will allow smokers to puff away in the gaming portions of their properties, despite the potential long-term harm it does to the thousands of employees forced to work in the smoky environs. Some of these operators will claim they allow smoking to keep patrons happy; after all, it’s all about the customers, isn’t it? Don’t be fooled, most everyone knows smoking in casinos is solely a monetary issue-the smoking gambler will go out of their way to find a facility that will allow them to do both at the same time or, it appears, not wager at all.

Still, how uncomfortable this issue remains in the gaming industry was evident at the Southern Gaming Summit held last month in Biloxi, Miss. During one of the keynote sessions at the conference, an anti-smoking activist among the attendees asked a panel of industry executives for their take on the green movement and smoke-free environments at casinos. What had been a voluble group suddenly became quiet, looking at each other to see who was willing to address the question. One casino operator admitted that it was a hot-button issue, but gaming properties that allow smoking generally do better than those that don’t. A slot manufacturer on the panel suggested technology may help; that server-based gaming systems allow patrons to take prolonged breaks from machines, go and have a smoke, and come back to play the game exactly where they left off.

Other members on the panel chose to say nothing, and all looked relieved when the next question from the crowd dealt with a less contentious issue.

At some point, hemming and hawing and refusing to address the negative impacts of casino smoking will no longer suffice and gaming operators will be forced to deal directly with the topic. Perhaps the solution lies in collaboration; operators, manufacturers, legislators and others with a vested interest in continued gaming success coming together to debate the issue and come up with solution to mitigate the damages. After all, it worked for problem gambling.

You can’t turn the other way from a problem forever. Sometimes you need to look in the mirror.