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Proposal would snuff out smoking at Mountaineer Casino

| Sunday, July 13, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

The Health Board in Hancock County, home to Mountaineer Casino, has an opportunity to set an example for Pennsylvania and other areas that allow smoking in casinos. The board last week proposed a sweeping overhaul of the county's 1999 rules on smoking in public areas. Its Clean Air Regulation of 2014 would ban smoking in all workplaces, businesses open to the public and outdoor public places, including parks, playgrounds and sports facilities.

The proposal specifically includes “gaming facilities.” A public hearing is scheduled for July 23; the board could vote Aug. 26.

MTR Gaming President Joseph Billhimer says a total ban would have three negative effects: lower revenue because of reduced play, lower taxes from the county's No. 1 taxpayer and fewer casino jobs. He suggests banning smoking in the resort's public areas, such as restaurants, lobbies, common trackside areas and entertainment venues, but limiting nonsmoking areas to 10 percent of the casino floor and 20 percent of hotel rooms.

Mountaineer has spent $900,000 in the past two years on air-cleaning systems, he says.

“We stand ready to work with the Board of Health for a solution that helps protect the revenue, the taxes and the jobs in Hancock County,” Billhimer says.

Casinos in many jurisdictions have wrangled exemptions from smoking restrictions with claims that gambling and lighting up are too intertwined to separate. But surveys repeatedly find that casino customers are pretty much like the rest of America in income, education and other key demographic statistics. That appears to be the case with smoking, as well.

In 2006, University of Nevada researchers observed 17,723 gamblers in Las Vegas, Reno and Lake Tahoe. The percentage of smokers they saw — 21.5, 22.6 and 17, respectively — was remarkably similar to the national smoking rate of 20.9 percent at the time. By 2012, the smoking rate among adults dropped to 18.1 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even casinos acknowledge that many gamblers prefer to play smoke-free. Most poker rooms have banned smoking for years, at players' request. Many states with new or proposed casinos — including Ohio, Maryland, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York — ban smoking in public buildings, but that doesn't stop casino companies from spending millions there.

Kanawha County, W. Va., instituted a smoking ban that includes Mardi Gras Casino. Billhimer says it has seen a decline in play, but advocates of a ban argue that there's no proof that the ban caused the drop. West Virginia has been losing customers to newer casinos in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Hancock County Health Department administrator Jackie Huff says that if the board approves the ban, Hancock would be the 28th of West Virginia's 55 counties to mandate clean indoor air.

Linda Holmstrand, the American Lung Association's tobacco-prevention coordinator for the region including Hancock County, sees the proposal as “comprehensive” legislation that protects workers and customers in many establishments, including casinos.

“Most people don't smoke,” she says. “Maybe their business will improve. We know anecdotally from people in Hancock County and surrounding areas that they wish there were places that didn't have smoking so they can frequent them.”

Deb Brown, president and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic, says more than 500 casinos across the country are smoke free, but Pennsylvania lawmakers have yet to act on a proposal to extend the state's smoking ban to casinos.

“It's not like this is groundbreaking legislation,” she says. “Many casino operators in Pennsylvania operate casinos in smoke-free states.”

The Hancock County proposal says: “Where the need to breathe smoke-free air conflicts with the desire to smoke, the need to breathe smoke-free air shall have priority.”

Those are words to live by.

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

How to comment

The Health Department of Hancock County, W. Va., is accepting written comments on a proposal to ban smoking in all workplaces and businesses, including Mountaineer Casino, and in public outdoor areas. Email comments to jackie.l.huff@wv.gov or mail to Hancock County Health Department, PO Box 578, New Cumberland, WV 26047. The proposal is available at www.HancockCountyHealthDepartment.com

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