2021 was the fifteenth anniversary of Westin Hotels and Resorts becoming the first hotel chain in 2006 to ban smoking in all their properties in the USA, Canada, and the Caribbean.1
Later that same year, Marriott International followed suit, and by 2011 several other prominent hotel chains (eg, Sheraton, Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, and Comfort Suites) had announced similar policies.2
By 2013, four states in the US (ie, Indiana, Michigan, North Dakota, and Wisconsin) had adopted policies to ban smoking in all hotel and motel rooms.3
Since then, however, progress towards adopting comprehensive state-level smoking bans has been slow. As of July 1, 2021, only three additional states had adopted state-wide smoking bans (Colorado, Connecticut, Vermont), while other states continued to pursue policies permitting smoking in designated smoking rooms.4
Based on decades of research on secondhand smoke (SHS) intrusion in multiunit buildings and the persistent legacy of thirdhand smoke (THS) residue, reluctance to implement comprehensive smoking bans in many hotels continues to create significant exposure risks for guests and employees in hotels without such policies.5,6
While few states have been willing to pass smokefree legislation for hotels over the past decade, there are now 270 cities throughout the US that have passed smokefree laws at the local level. Similar progress is reflected in the biannual surveys conducted by the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA).7
Their findings indicate that an increasing proportion of hotels have adopted voluntary smoking bans and have reduced the number of designated smoking guest rooms. While 38% of hotels reported being “100% non-smoking” in 2008, this percentage increased to 56% in 2010, 63% in 2014, and 85% in 2016. However, when the AHLA in 2018 redefined “100% non-smoking” as “100% non-smoking building”, only 63% of hotels reported having a 100% non-smoking building, suggesting there was some ambiguity in previous surveys about the definition of “100% non-smoking”, and previous surveys provided an overly optimistic view. Even more sobering is the fact that only 28% of budget hotels and 42% of hotels at interstate locations had a 100% smokefree building in 2018, suggesting that a majority of budget travelers are at risk of exposure to toxic secondhand and thirdhand smoke pollutants.5,8,9
The existing patchwork of policies across different state and local jurisdictions and hotel brands and chains represents an ambiguous environment for tobacco policies and their implementation. Further complicating this inconsistent policy field is that hotels serve a large and diverse national and international clientele who bring varying expectations about smoking bans and restrictions from their home locations to their travel destinations. Smokers visiting from regions with high smoking prevalence and lax policies may be unfamiliar with and may find it challenging to comply with restrictive smoking policies. Nonsmokers visiting from regions with strict policies and low prevalence may have less tolerance for other hotel guests’ smoking behavior. The recent legalization of recreational cannabis in some jurisdictions and the increase in electronic vaping devices contribute to additional complexity and uncertainty about the interpretation of smoking bans and their implementation. Finally, the economic success of a hotel is driven by high occupancy and turnover rate, virtually guaranteeing that over the course of a year, any particular room may have housed multiple smokers. For instance, with a smoking prevalence of just 15% and an average of 200 different guests per year in a hotel room, the binomial probability that 20 or more smokers occupied a particular room is 98.5%. Such a policy setting creates significant challenges for hotels for informing guests and implementing smoking bans that consistently protect hotel guests and employees.
Violations of hotel smoking bans do not only affect other hotel guests who are exposed to intruding secondhand smoke (SHS) in nearby rooms. They also create exposure risks to future guests because tobacco, electronic cigarettes, and cannabis (TEC) smoke and aerosols leave behind thirdhand smoke (THS) residue that accumulates over time and can linger for years.10–14
Previous research has shown that compared to hotels with complete smoking bans, nonsmoking and smoking rooms in hotels that allowed smoking were polluted with THS, and nonsmoking guests staying in a designated smoking room were exposed to tobacco smoke toxicants.3
SHS and THS exposure not only create health risks for guests and staff, but hotels also incur high costs for cleaning and repairs after guests have smoked in a room (eg, shampooing carpets, keeping rooms vacant). Not surprisingly, a survey of hotel managers in California found that 80.5% of nonsmoking hotels charged a fee or fine if guests smoked in a nonsmoking room, ranging from $20-$1600 (Mean = $168).15
A mixed-methods study of hotel management and media coverage of smokefree hotels showed that business considerations, such as cost savings, guest preferences, and competitor actions, were primary factors for implementing smokefree policies.16
To better understand how hotel guests experience smoking policies in hotels, we examined guest reviews for information about exposure to SHS or THS smoke from tobacco, electronic cigarettes, and cannabis (TEC). We borrowed the concept of information asymmetry from behavioral economics, considering TEC complaints as a possible result of a disparity between what a hotel claims to offer in terms of protection from exposure to SHS and THS and what guests experience in a hotel. We scrutinized reviews on the independent travel website TripAdvisor, focusing on complaints by nonsmokers who had made reservations in a 100% nonsmoking hotel or for a nonsmoking room in a hotel that also had smoking rooms. We hypothesized TEC-related complaints would be nearly universal and that a majority of complaints would be associated with tobacco rather than cannabis and electronic cigarettes and with THS residue rather than SHS intrusion. Moreover, we hypothesized that hotels offering designated smoking rooms, lower-priced, and lower-star hotels would have more TEC complaints and that early adopters of smoking bans and hotels in communities with lower smoking prevalence would have fewer TEC complaints.
This is the first study to examine hotel guest reviews for tobacco, electronic cigarettes, and cannabis complaints. We specifically focused on TEC-related complaints by guests who deliberately tried to protect themselves from SHS or THS exposure by making reservations for nonsmoking rooms or in 100% smokefree hotels. Our findings show that the patchwork of different state and hotel policies fails to consistently protect nonsmokers from being exposed to SHS smoke intrusion and THS residue. Of all TEC-related complaints, 80% were associated with thirdhand smoke residue lingering in hotels from previous guests, 10% with secondhand tobacco smoke intrusion, and 10% with cannabis. Not a single guest review specifically mentioned electronic cigarettes or vaping. It should be noted, however, that it is difficult to attribute SHS and THS odor, discoloration, or burn marks to a specific product or a combination of products, and some of the complaints attributed to tobacco smoke may have been caused by electronic cigarettes or cannabis.
Our findings provide insights into some of the factors affecting TEC complaints in hotels and hotel rooms where TEC use is presumably banned. As hypothesized, budget, low star, low-price hotels had more complaints about TEC than the other hotels. That is, guests who stayed in the lowest-star and lower-priced hotels found themselves at a higher risk of exposure to TEC pollutants even if they made reservations for a smokefree room or in a smokefree hotel. This suggests that current hotel smoking policies disproportionately affect guests staying in the lowest-star hotels. It should be noted that the increased rate of TEC complaints applied to ≤2 star hotels and that 2.5 and higher star-rated hotels did not differ from each other. In addition to room cost and star ratings, hotel policies and practices play a significant role in protecting guests from TEC exposure. Hotels that have adopted a 100% smokefree policy showed, on average, 26% fewer complaints than hotels that allow smoking in some hotel rooms. Second, hotel brands had an unexpectedly strong association with TEC complaints independent of smoking status, star rating, and room price. As hypothesized, two early adopters of 100% smokefree hotels had the fewest TEC-related complaints (Marriott with .93 and Hilton with .97 complaints per 100 reviews). In stark contrast, however, two other early adopters showed the worst record among branded hotels with complaints at a three-times higher rate (Choice Hotels: 3.14, Wyndham: 3.36) than Marriot or Hilton. These findings suggest that hotels’ failure to protect nonsmokers from TEC exposure is influenced by how they implement and enforce their smoking policies.
Different from our expectation, there was no association between state overall smoking rates and TEC complaints. However, TEC complaints differed significantly between locations. Hotels in Los Angeles, CA, located in a state with low smoking prevalence, had the highest rate of TEC complaints controlling for other variables (3.11). In contrast, Little Rock, AK, the capital of a state with one of the highest smoking prevalences, had one of the lowest rates of complaints (1.92). Similarly, Michigan is one of the few states that ban smoking in hotels, but Detroit had the second-highest rate of TEC complaint among the ten cities (2.84). While we cannot give a definitive answer to why rates of TEC complaints differed between locations, these destinations may attract different groups of guests (eg, international travelers from countries with higher smoking rates) who systematically differ concerning expectations about smoking in hotel rooms. These expectations may affect the behavior of smokers as well the likelihood of nonsmokers to notice THS and register TEC-related complaints.
Based on the existing scientific evidence on SHS and THS in multiunit buildings and findings about guest complaints from the present study, restricting smoking to particular guest rooms or areas within the hotel is an ineffective policy and fails to protect guests staying in nonsmoking rooms of the same building from SHS and THS exposure.5,9
Fifteen years after the first hotel chains adopted 100% smokefree policies, it is misleading for hotels to suggest nonsmoking rooms offer a smokefree environment when in the same building smoking is allowed in other rooms. When deciding which hotel to stay in, hotel guests rely on accurate information provided on a hotel website to make reservations for nonsmoking rooms expecting protection from SHS and THS exposure. Our findings suggest that many hotels claim to offer a hotel stay free of SHS and THS when in fact, their policies cannot assure this level of protection to their guests. To remove this information asymmetry, hotels offering dedicated smoking rooms should present themselves as smoker hotels and caution their guests that they cannot protect nonsmokers from SHS and THS exposure in nonsmoking rooms. Not only will this allow guests to make informed decisions, but it will also reward hotels that do provide a 100% smokefree-building hotel.
Our findings show, however, that declaring a 100% smokefree building policy or a state-wide hotel smoking ban itself does not automatically protect nonsmokers from exposure to SHS and THS. The substantial differences between hotel brands in TEC-related guest complaints independent of their smoking policies demonstrate that the implementation of such policies matters. Implementation starts with disclosing on their website and other public relations material that a hotel follows and enforces strict 100% smokefree building policies. Effective implementation also requires hotel staff training, signage, and reminders at check-in, hallways, balconies, conference rooms, staircases, elevators, and guest rooms. In addition, implementation includes consistent enforcement of policies and practices. Finally, implementation requires listening and responding to guest feedback, such as online reviews to identify and remedy discrepancies between how a hotel presents and how guests experience a hotel’s smoking policy.
With 80% of TEC complaints attributable to THS residue left behind by previous guests, hotels must pay attention to two separate issues. Hotels have to be deliberate and persistent in implementing smoking bans to avoid the new accumulation of THS. In addition, hotels have to address existing THS reservoirs left behind from years of permissive smoking policies. THS is highly persistent and will not disappear by itself, so a single THS-polluted room will cause repeated complaints. Even though guests may complain about the offensive odor, the underlying THS reservoir will not be reduced by using fragrances or other chemical approaches to cover up or remove the odor (eg, ozonation). Instead., hotels must identify, clean, and remove the reservoirs where THS pollutants are stored, such as carpets, beds, mattresses, furniture, and wallboard, to prevent future odor complaints caused by re-emission from THS reservoirs.
Hotel guest complaints about tobacco, electronic cigarettes, and cannabis should be interpreted with caution. The number of TEC-related complaints we recorded is likely to be an undercount of the actual number of TEC-related incidences experienced by hotel guests because only a fraction of such incidences is likely to be reported, and only a fraction of those are provided in writing as guest reviews on TripAdvisor. It is also possible that guests may have misinterpreted odors as coming from tobacco, cannabis, and e-cigarette products or failed to attribute unpleasant odors to tobacco and cannabis products. Irrespective of a potential undercount, the number of TEC complaints per 100 reviews provides a valuable metric describing the relative frequency of TEC complaints compared to the total number of guest reviews and sheds light on differences between hotels and the factors affecting such complaints. While our study relies on a random sample of hotels in the largest cities of 10 states with 50 or more guest reviews, our findings cannot be generalized to hotels in smaller cities, rural areas, or hotels generating fewer than 50 guest reviews. The distinct differences in TEC complaints between locations suggest location-specific factors that affect TEC complaints, but these factors remain unknown and should be further explored. This study could not examine changes in TEC complaints over time as hotels may have transitioned to smokefree policies. Hotel and TripAdvisor smoking status used in this study was based on hotel policies from November 2018 to February 2019. The official hotel policies at the time guests made reservations could not be confirmed except for hotels that had publicly declared smokefree policies since 2006 or 2011. However, this does not alter our conclusions as all TEC complaints came from guests reporting reservations for smokefree rooms or in smokefree hotels, that is, hotels offering smokefree accommodations at the time of a hotel stay.
From a consumer’s perspective, hotels share many characteristics with other indoor environments for which comprehensive smoking bans already exist. Like restaurants, bars, airplanes, and public transportation, hotels have a high occupancy turnover and are used by a broad cross-section of the population. While at first it seemed impossible, 100% smokefree policies for these indoor environments are now widely implemented and enjoy high compliance. A uniform, comprehensive building-wide smoking ban for hotels would remove ambiguity and facilitate the implementation of consistent policies across different hotel brands to protect the vast majority of guests seeking a sanctuary from secondhand and thirdhand smoke pollution caused by tobacco, cannabis, and electronic cigarette use. Until such uniform bans are in place, individual hotels should give up the illusion that designated smoking rooms can protect nonsmokers and fully commit to implementing and enforcing a 100% smokefree-building policy.