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Drive for smoke-free casinos picks up steam

| Sunday, April 6, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Gamblers who want to play without the smell and health threat of secondhand smoke have plenty to cheer about lately.

Two Pennsylvania legislators are pushing a bill that would prohibit smoking throughout the casino floor as well as at several other locations now exempt from the state ban. Health officials in the home counties for West Virginia's Wheeling Island and Mountaineer casinos want to extend local smoking bans to the gaming floor. Responding to customer requests, Gold Strike Casino in Tunica, Miss., last month opened a nonsmoking table game pit and slot area.

“This is the most movement we've seen at the local level in the past couple of years,” says Cynthia Hallett, executive director of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, a national lobbying organization.

Nationwide, 20 states, including Ohio, require state-regulated casinos to be smoke free, according to Hallett's organization. Unfortunately, the three with the most gambling revenue — Nevada, Pennsylvania and New Jersey — are not among them. Pennsylvania mandates that 50 percent of the casino floor be nonsmoking, but smoke ignores the boundaries.

The expanded smoking bans in Pennsylvania and in Ohio and Hancock counties in West Virginia are still just proposals. Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County, and Rep. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe County, are sponsors of the Pennsylvania bill.

Hallett applauds the nonsmoking area at Gold Strike, an MGM Resorts International casino. Tunica, the country's No. 10 gambling region in terms of revenue, is a half-hour south of Memphis.

Even though smoking is common in Mississippi — 24 percent of adults there smoke, compared with 18 percent nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — Gold Strike Director of Casino Operations Phil Hunter says the nonsmoking area is popular.

“It's been a real success story” since opening March 14, he says. The second-floor nonsmoking area has three blackjack tables, a Mississippi Stud table and 136-slot and video-poker machines. It's a fraction of the size of Gold Strike's main floor, where smoking is allowed, but managers made sure upstairs gamblers feel welcome. The area has the aura of a private room, with newly upgraded audio and video entertainment, a coffee and soft-drink station plus hostess service with comped alcoholic drinks.

“Ten years ago, this wouldn't have worked,” Hunter says.

Although the room opened in response to customer requests and is drawing rave reviews, he doesn't think the industry is ready for completely smoke-free casinos.

The $2.4 billion Revel casino in Atlantic City attracted attention in part because it was totally nonsmoking when it opened in 2012. It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy about 10 months later, with officials citing numerous marketing mistakes. It continues to operate but now allows smoking.

Hallett says the percentage of smokers among gamblers is about the same as in the general population. She urges gamblers to speak up in favor of smoke-free casinos.

As gambling expands, adding spas and other amenities is not enough to lure new customers, she warns: “If you've got someone with a significant health issue, they're not going to go in if it's filled with smoke.”

Dr. Bill Mercer, health officer for the Wheeling-Ohio County (W.Va.) Health Department, says the timing is right for a regional effort to ban smoking in casinos. With all Ohio casinos smoke- free, extending the smoking bans to Wheeling Island, Mountaineer and Pennsylvania casinos would remove the argument that smokers will go elsewhere to gamble, he says.

He and Hallett say a smoking ban is even more important for casino workers than for gamblers.

“You shouldn't have to hunt for a safe place to work,” Mercer says.

Mark Gruetze is administrative editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7838 or players@tribweb.com.

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