On a chilly afternoon last week, Robert Kelley was puffing on a Winston Light outside the casino at Dover Downs raceway in Delaware. Kelley, of Harrington, Del., said he plays the slots every week, despite a state smoking ban that includes casinos.

"The gamblers always go where there's gambling," Kelley, 52, said with a shrug. "They just have to change their smoking habits."

But will they? That's the question being asked with increased anxiety throughout the gaming industry here and abroad as ever-mounting evidence of the dangers of secondhand smoke spurs governments to impose smoking bans. Some gaming operators are even using smoke-free gambling to their marketing advantage.

On Wednesday, the Atlantic City Council is slated to vote on a partial ban that would require 75 percent of the casinos' gaming floors to be smoke-free.

The council had been flirting with a full smoking ban, which would have closed a loophole left in last year's state antismoking law. After some council members said they feared a ban would hurt casino business and jobs, the partial ban emerged as a compromise.

Casino employees and health advocacy groups cried foul, accusing the council majority of buckling under gaming industry pressure and endangering workers' health.

Joseph A. Corbo Jr., executive director of the Casino Association of New Jersey, had said a full smoking ban could cost casinos 20 percent in annual revenues and more than 3,400 jobs.

Neither he nor casino industry leader Harrah's would comment for this story. But the increasing wave of smoking bans leaves little doubt what's ahead.

"I think every Atlantic City casino operator and every state-regulated casino operator in the country realizes at some point they're going to have to be smoke-free," said Joseph Weinert, a vice president of the Spectrum Gaming Group, an international consulting firm based in New Jersey. Las Vegas, he noted, is "nervously watching what's happening in Atlantic City."

Last week, the Pennsylvania legislature and the European Union both considered smoking bans that could affect gaming houses.

Twenty-two states, Puerto Rico and Washington ban smoking in public places. Many of those bans affect gaming, although not necessarily casinos, according to the American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation. Gaming establishments in formerly smoky Ireland and Italy also have banned casino smoking, and a ban in France will take effect next year.

Does this mean gaming venues are going belly-up? Actually, no. Substantial evidence indicates gambling can be smokeless and still succeed.

Some gambling halls here and abroad voluntarily offer smoke-free areas or ban smoking. Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, two competing casinos on tribal lands in southeastern Connecticut, have nonsmoking areas. Steve Wynn offers smoke-free gambling in Macau. The Taos Mountain Casino in New Mexico, also tribal-run, bans smoking.

"If you put a gun to my head and we went to smoking, it would hurt our revenue," said Marc Kaplan, marketing director at Taos Mountain Casino. "My biggest marketing tool is being smoke-free."

The casino also saves money on maintenance, insurance, and employee sick time, he said. Taos Mountain never allowed smoking. Imposing a ban on smoking can be different.

In 2004, Massachusetts imposed a smoking ban that led to a drop in sales for its Keno lottery-style game, which is played at 1,725 venues, including bars and racetracks. To help, the state increased playing hours and cut the time between games.

"We were able to keep sales strong, in fact stronger than ever," lottery spokeswoman Beth Bresnahan said.

Sales for this fiscal year are almost 2 percent higher than last year, she said.

In Delaware, revenues from the state's three casinos have surpassed what they were before a 2002 smoking ban. Delaware also allowed adjustments, including more gaming machines and longer playing hours, to help the industry.

The ban stalled Dover Downs' steady growth, according to operating officer Ed Suttor.

"It took us another 12 months to get back to where we were, so we lost two years," Suttor said.

Suttor said he cut his workforce by 10 percent, mostly through attrition, and spent about $500,000 to build smoking shelters. Still, he's not bitter.

"I think it's going to happen inevitably across the United States," he said.

"There's an old saying: You have lemons, you make lemonade. We're advertising that we're smoke-free."

In Ireland, despite dire predictions of lost business, the effect of a national ban on casinos was "barely noticeable," said James Thompson, a manager at the 78 Club in Dublin. "People adjusted very quickly," Thompson said.

Judy Patterson, executive director of the American Gaming Association, said many casinos had installed state-of-the-art ventilation systems.

Health advocates involved in the Atlantic City debate say that's not enough. Regina Carlson, executive director of the antismoking group NJ GASP (Group Against Smoking Pollution), said her organization tested Rhode Island casinos that have smoking and nonsmoking areas - similar to what's proposed in Atlantic City - and found air quality unacceptable, according to a study to be released today.

Weinert, the gaming consultant, predicted that if Atlantic City's partial ban passes, at least one casino in the resort town would go smoke-free.

About 20 percent of American adults smoke, but the gambling industry says the percentage among gamblers is higher. Dover Downs' Suttor said customer surveys show half of his customers smoke. A recent University of Nevada study found that 21.5 percent of Nevada gamblers were smokers.

So the question remains: Will smokers come?

Kelley, the Dover Downs player, is betting they will, as he does in Delaware. Recently, though, he tried his luck in Atlantic City.

In between puffs, he grinned and said: "It was nice being able to smoke."

Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841 or rgiordano@phillynews.com.