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Presque Isle Downs, Mountaineer adapt in battle over smoking rules

| Sunday, April 26, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

Two regional casinos are taking extra steps to welcome nonsmokers.

Gamblers will notice changes at Presque Isle Downs in Erie and Mountaineer Casino Racetrack and Resort in Chester, W.Va., both owned by Eldorado Resorts Inc. A $5.1 million renovation at Presque Isle will feature a redesigned floor plan that provides a large, contiguous nonsmoking area, including a bar and casino entrance. Mountaineer is set to become smoke-free July 1, under an expansion of Hancock County smoking regulations that the casino opposed.

Smoking in casinos remains a hot topic in Pennsylvania and nationwide. State gaming regulators say smoking is the No. 1 complaint they hear about from residents. Nationwide, at least 510 state-regulated gambling facilities are required to be smoke-free, according to the American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation. On April 22, a ban took effect in New Orleans, eliminating smoking in Harrah's casino; a judge had rejected company pleas for an exemption.

A bill to ban smoking in Pennsylvania casinos has been reintroduced in the Legislature, and the health board in Ohio County, W.Va., site of Wheeling Island casino, is exploring a ban similar to Hancock County's.

Pennsylvania allows smoking on up to half of a casino floor, although smoking and nonsmoking areas may be interspersed. While Allegheny County's smoking ban covers Heinz Field and PNC Park, it cannot apply to Rivers Casino because of a statewide exemption for casinos.

The reconfiguration of the Presque Isle floor is part of a $5.1 million remodeling that includes installation of large bar in the middle of the casino and renovation of La Bonne Vie steakhouse and the high-limit area.

The nonsmoking area will begin with the casino's south entrance, on the opposite side of the building from the main parking area. Gamblers will be able to access table games, slots, restrooms and food outlets — except for the steakhouse — without setting foot in the smoking area, casino vice president and general manager Jeff Favre told members of the Gaming Control Board.

Favre said Presque Isle will market the nonsmoking amenities, which will include about 660 of the property's 1,580 slot machines. Slot-machine types, themes and manufacturers will be spread as equally as possible between smoking and nonsmoking. “I believe the mix in nonsmoking will be more attractive than it is today,” he added.

But the casino also counts patrons' ability to light up as a way to attract some gamblers who might otherwise head to Horseshoe Cleveland, which has siphoned traffic from Presque Isle since opening in 2012.

Ohio is among several states that outlaw smoking in all buildings open to the public, including casinos. Being able to offer gamblers “a smoking experience” gives Presque Isle a competitive advantage over Ohio, Favre said.

In July, Mountaineer will no longer be able to offer that experience because of a tougher ban approved in August by the Hancock County Board of Health. Mountaineer had argued against the ban, saying it would reduce gambling revenue by 17 percent.

Despite preferring a smoking floor, the casino plans changes to reduce the projected hit, Joseph Billhimer, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Eldorado Resorts, tells Player's Advantage.

Mountaineer intends to build an open-air patio with more than 120 slots and several table games where smoking will be allowed. That setup, similar to one used at Eldorado's Scioto Downs racino in Columbus, will allow Mountaineer to remain competitive with Pennsylvania casinos, Billhimer says. Over the past three years, Mountaineer spent about $20 million to revamp the gaming floor, improve its air-filtration system and remodel all hotel tower rooms, he says. The casino already has a nonsmoking entrance leading to a nonsmoking section.

About 18 percent of American adults smoke, according to 2013 figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate is 21 percent in Pennsylvania and 27.3 percent in West Virginia.

Because people who visit casinos represent a cross-section of America, smoking rates among casino visitors are about the same.

The campaign to ban smoking for the benefit of casino workers and the vast majority of gamblers will not go away. Ohio, Illinois, Maryland and New York are among the states that refuse to exempt casinos from smoke-free laws that apply to other types of public facilities.

Restaurants, bars and open-air stadiums have made the switch. People have a right to smoke-free air in casinos, as well.

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

What do you think?

Should casinos be exempted from government-approved smoking bans that apply to other workplaces and sites open to the public?

Email comments to players@tribweb.com or post in the comments section below.

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