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Smoke-free casinos inevitable everywhere, advocate says

When the $2.4 billion Revel casino opens April 2 in Atlantic City, visitors will be able to indulge themselves with gambling, gourmet dining, drinking and dancing.

But not smoking.

The 1,898-room resort, which boasts stunning ocean views and is New Jersey's first new casino in nine years, will allow smoking in only one area -- an outdoor spot near a nightclub.

The Revel is getting lots of attention not only for its potential economic impact, but also for the decision to open as the state's only smoke-free casino.

"Many people have avoided casinos because of the secondhand smoke, so it's a great chance to attract a more diverse clientele to Atlantic City," says Bronson Frick, associate director of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, which has pushed for smoke-free public sites since 1976. "It's also part of a growing national and global trend."

Frick says 19 states -- notably excluding Pennsylvania -- require casinos to be smoke-free. Among them are Illinois, where the top-grossing casino is the Rivers in suburban Chicago, owned by the company that operates a North Shore casino with the same name; Ohio, where the first casino is scheduled to open next month; and California.

The group ranks Pennsylvania's anti-smoking law among the weakest in the country because of its many exemptions. For example, it limits smoking to 25 percent of the casino floor, but allows that area to be doubled if a 90-day review of slot-machine revenue shows the average win per machine in the smoking area substantially was more than in the nonsmoking area.

Each of the state's 10 casinos was able to increase the smoking area to the maximum of half the floor space within a few months of opening. At The Meadows in Washington County, for example, the state Revenue Department calculated the average daily win per machine in the nonsmoking area as $269.20, slightly less than half of the $543.76 in the smoking area. The revenue comparison was done only once.

In addition to enacting a weak statewide law, Pennsylvania prevents cities from establishing stronger local rules, Frick says. Any action to limit smoking would have to come from the Legislature.

Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Bucks County, who has pushed for a statewide ban on indoor smoking since 1993, says the investment of $2.4 billion in Revel proves a nonsmoking casino can attract customers.

"We need to close the loopholes (in Pennsylvania)," he says. "I'm still trying."

Three Card Poker fan Monique Franklin of Chicago doesn't like the idea of smoke-free casinos.

"Drinking and gambling and smoking -- it's a grown folks' playground," she says outside Pittsburgh's Rivers, holding her lighted cigarette away from passers-by. When not visiting family in Pittsburgh, she plays at a Gary, Ind., casino that allows smoking.

Marilyn Galland of Cleveland looks forward to a smoke-free casino opening in her hometown, but says ventilation systems at Rivers and Meadows keep smoke from being too much of a bother.

Casino employees have a bigger stake in the debate than customers.

"For too long, casino workers have had to choose between their health and their paycheck," Frick says. "Increasingly, that's not the case."

Frick, whose group pushed for eliminating smoking in restaurants, airplanes and work sites, says smoke-free casinos are inevitable nationwide. He cites a 2009 study by the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health that found dealers have more exposure to secondhand smoke than any other occupation. A study by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers found that even sophisticated air-cleaning technologies could not protect people from the hazards of secondhand smoke.

"The only way to achieve that is through a smoke-free environment," Frick says, adding that several academic studies have found that about 80 percent of gamblers are nonsmokers. That's the same as the rate of nonsmokers among Americans 18 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He encourages players to let executives know they prefer smoke-free casinos and says casinos should survey players club members.

"We hear from many in the gaming industry that they want to go smoke-free, but they feel pressure to not speak up," Frick says. "Change is hard. It's something we saw earlier with airlines, restaurants, bars.

"Smoke-free will become the norm and expectation in the casino industry, as well."

Pennsylvania again tops New JERSEY in revenue

February was the fourth consecutive month that Pennsylvania topped New Jersey in gambling revenue.

Pennsylvania's 10 casinos had total revenue of $272.2 million -- $56.5 million from table games and $215.7 million from slots, the Gaming Control Board reported. New Jersey, which long had ranked as the No. 2 gambling state behind Nevada, reported $247.7 million total gambling revenue for the month.

Pennsylvania table-game revenue was up by $12.9 million, or 29.6 percent, from February 2011.

The figures reflect how much casinos won from gamblers; they are not profit.

Money trail

For the week ended March 18, slot players lost $49.5 million in Pennsylvania casinos, the Gaming Control Board said. That's down from $50.3 million in the comparable week last year.

The state takes 55 percent of the gross slot revenue, or what's left of gamblers' wagers after jackpots are paid. Statewide, the machines have paid out at a 90.06 percent rate since the fiscal year started in July. For every $100 bet, the machines return an average of $90.06. Payout rates for Western Pennsylvania casinos:

  • 89.86%: Rivers; slot revenue for the week was $5.51 million, down from $5.56 million last year.
  • 89.79%: Meadows; slot revenue for the week was $4.94 million, down from $5.32 million last year.
  • 90.44%: Presque Isle in Erie; slot revenue for the week was $3.26 million, down from $3.63 million last year.

QUESTION OF THE WEEK

What's does the World Series of Poker start?

The seven-week event, which will award 61 championship bracelets, opens May 27 at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. The games will include the $10,000-per-seat Main Event and a $1 million buy-in tournament. Broadcasts will be on ESPN.

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