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Time has come to ban smoking in Pa., W.Va. casinos

| Sunday, April 27, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

The scene is all too familiar to nonsmokers who visit casinos. A few minutes after they get settled at a promising slot machine or blackjack table, the person in the next seat lights up. As if pulled by a magnet, the smoke streams toward the nonsmoker's face.

Proposals under consideration in Pennsylvania and in two West Virginia counties with casinos would snuff out that scenario.

Pennsylvania Rep. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe County, and Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County, are sponsoring bills that would extend the state's smoking ban to the casino floor. In West Virginia, health officials in Ohio County and Hancock County are pushing local ordinances that would ban smoking in Wheeling Island and Mountaineer casinos.

It's about time — for the sake of players and casino workers subjected to unwanted and unhealthy secondhand smoke.

Dismissing arguments that a smoking ban would send gamblers elsewhere, Scavello says Pennsylvania should lead the way.

“If everybody's on the same page, then it won't decimate the casino,” he says. “If Pennsylvania was the leader, everybody else will follow suit.”

Smoke-free casinos aren't new. Twenty states prohibit smoking in all buildings open to the public, including casinos. That includes Ohio, where new casinos are blamed for pulling customers from Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Two West Virginia casinos, Charlestown and Mardi Gras, already are smoke-free.

“I think (a smoking ban) might even help us,” Scavello says. “There are folks who want to gamble but they don't want to gamble in a smoking environment.”

For proof of that, look no further than your favorite casino. Even in those that allow smoking elsewhere on the casino floor, poker rooms are typically nonsmoking because of player requests.

The idea of banning smoking is a touchy subject. Rivers General Manager Craig Clark declined comment because it is a regulatory question. Wheeling Island and Mountaineer representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

Nikki Orcutt, deputy director of marketing for the West Virginia Lottery, which regulates casinos in the state, says a smoking ban is a local issue, but the lottery worries about any action that might affect casino revenue. She says Mardi Gras casino in Nitro saw revenue drop after a county smoking ban was expanded to include the casino. Mardi Gras' general manager did not respond to a request for comment.

Healy E. Baumgardner-Nardone, spokesperson for No2theBAN Coalition, which opposes extending the Hancock County smoking ban, says the proposal would cause more harm than good, hurting not only Mountaineer but also video-lottery outlets, restaurants, bars and the hospitality industry. She says anti-smoking efforts should begin with education, not government infringement on business.

The warnings of lost revenue and the resulting taxes echo the argument that restaurants and other businesses made in years past. They have thrived with smoking bans. Cynthia Hallett, executive director of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, says casinos should plan a transition to nonsmoking and maintains that a ban will attract many players who now refuse to visit casinos that allow smoking.

When Horseshoe Cleveland casino opened in 2012, about six years after a statewide smoking ban took effect, Ohioans were accustomed to the rule, says Shannon Mortland, Ohio Region director of public relations for Caesars Entertainment, which also operates Horseshoe Cincinnati and ThistleDown Racino in Cleveland. She says customers sometimes compliment the casino on its clean feel but no one has complained about having to go outside to smoke. Players frequently hold slot machine seats for players who take a restroom or smoke break, she says, and table-game players can leave their chips at their seat long enough for a cigarette. ThistleDown recently opened Ohio's first outdoor “smoking patio” where customers can light up, watch horse racing and play video-lottery terminals.

That shows how casinos can accommodate smokers and nonsmokers alike.

Pennsylvania, the country's No. 2 gambling state, should lead by example and ban smoking in casinos.

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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