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W.Va. smoking ban a strong precedent, advocates say

| Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

The decision to ban smoking at Mountaineer Casino and other public areas in Hancock County, W.Va., sets an example for making the air safer for everyone, anti-smoking advocates say.

But the ban, effective in July 2015, will carry a high economic cost, predicts the president of MTR Gaming, the casino's parent company.

The Hancock County Health Board voted 5-0 on Aug. 26 to prohibit smoking in most areas open to the public, including workplaces, gaming facilities, playgrounds and sports fields.

“Hats off to Hancock,” says Dr. William Mercer, administrator of the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department, which has proposed extending its smoking ban to include Wheeling Island casino. “That was a huge public health thing. … I'd like to think (the Wheeling-Ohio Health Board) would see this as a sign of the times.”

A “dismayed,” “disappointed” and “frustrated” MTR President Joe Billhimer, who said before the vote that a total ban would drive away players and force casino layoffs, says the company will review all alternatives, “as unpleasant as they may be.”

Weeks before the vote, MTR offered to ban smoking in the casino's restaurants, lobbies and entertainment venues and specify 10 percent of the casino floor and 20 percent of hotel rooms as nonsmoking. Billhimer says MTR was open to increasing the size of those areas, but the company's internal polling showed most customers support smoking in the casino.

“This (ban) is overwhelmingly not a decision the community would have made had it been put to a vote.”

Cynthia Hallett, executive director of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, calls the Hancock County action “very significant.”

“Not only will this law protect those casino workers who are being exposed to excessively high rates of toxic secondhand smoke (based on a June 2009 NIOSH study that reported much higher levels in casinos compared to other workplaces), it will set a positive precedent for other gaming localities in the Midwest and Gulf Coast region,” she says in an email.

A proposal to remove the casino exemption from Pennsylvania's ban against smoking in public places remains stalled. A spokesman for Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County, says Greenleaf's Senate bill was first introduced in 2008 and would have to be reintroduced if it is not acted upon before the 2015 session starts. Pennsylvania law allows smoking on 50 percent of a casino floor, with no stipulation on how the 50 percent is scattered.

In an interview before the Hancock County decision, a Mississippi casino executive tells Player's Advantage that casinos considering no-smoking areas should make sure they offer a “full casino experience.”

“You can't do it where it's a room pushed off to the side where there's a couple of machines and maybe a couple of blackjack tables,” says Phil Hunter, director of casino operations at Gold Strike in Tunica, about a half-hour south of Memphis. That includes supplying a staff of friendly servers, dealers and slot attendants.

“If you're going to do it, you've got to be fully committed and do it well or it's probably not going to work,” Hunter says. Gold Strike's no-smoking area, which opened in March, is doing “very, very well,” he adds.

Smoking is allowed throughout Gold Strike's main casino on the first floor.

Hallett notes that Baltimore's Horseshoe casino, which is totally smoke-free, opened the same day as the Hancock County vote. It's Maryland's fifth casino, and state law bans smoking in all of them. Ohio, New York and Illinois are among the states with similar laws.

“(Horseshoe Baltimore) demonstrates that smoke-free casinos are becoming an expectation of the predominantly nonsmoking public and, of course, so much better for worker health and safety,” Hallett says. She adds that casinos incur costs by allowing smoking, including additional ventilation and higher worker absenteeism.

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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