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Player's Advantage: Casinos should follow same no-smoking rule as other businesses

| Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015, 1:30 p.m.

The Wheeling-Ohio County Health Board has an opportunity to take a stand on behalf of casino players and employees in West Virginia and beyond.

On Nov. 10, the board is scheduled to consider a proposal to expand the county's ban on smoking to include stores, restaurants and most workplaces. The rule would apply to every venue open to the public with two glaring exceptions: the gaming area of Wheeling Island casino and free-standing video lottery rooms.

The board should snuff out those exemptions. Health dangers from secondhand smoke are just as real in places that take bets as they are in office buildings, stadiums and everywhere else the ban would apply.

In Wheeling and throughout the country, casinos have evolved into a familiar, and welcome, part of the community. They generate millions of dollars in tax revenue, employ thousands of workers and provide an entertainment option that attracts people from miles around.

In many areas, casinos are one of the last public areas where the law tolerates smoking. Wheeling Island officials did not respond to requests for comment, but casino executives often say smoking and gambling go hand-in-hand. The common argument is that a smoking ban will significantly reduce their revenue, as well as the gambling taxes that local governments now depend on.

However, developers have spent billions for non-smoking casinos in Ohio, Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts, where gambling facilities must follow the same clean-air rules as every other business.

The casino industry has solid research proving that casino visitors are no different from Americans in general. About 17 percent of American adults smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means roughly four of every five casino visitors are nonsmokers.

Workers should not be forced to breathe secondhand smoke just because their job is on a casino floor. Casino visitors should enjoy the same health protection afforded to shoppers, diners and fans attending open-air sporting events.

Proposals to prohibit smoking in existing casinos generate intense debate wherever they're brought. In New Orleans this spring, Harrah's, part of Caesar's Entertainment Corp., fought a citywide ban that included its casino as well as bars and restaurants in the fabled French Quarter. Last year, Mountaineer casino in Chester, W.Va., opposed an expanded countywide smoking ban. New Orleans and Hancock County officials heard the objections but rightly decided that public health is the most important consideration. The casinos survived; many gamblers tell reporters they appreciate the cleaner air.

In 2011, the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department proposed a smoking ban that would apply to all public places, including the casino. The Health Board, whose government-appointed members set policy, deferred action. For the past year, board members have met with representatives of businesses and other groups potentially affected by a broader smoking ban. The discussions led to the exemptions in the current proposal, Health Department Administrator Howard Gamble says.

“I think it should be 100 percent nonsmoking,” he adds. “It does make the best public-health sense.”

Cynthia Hallett, executive director of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, says New Orleans and Hancock County faced the same challenges as Wheeling and Ohio County. Exempting Wheeling Island would be a “missed opportunity” to strengthen a law designed to protect all workers, she says.

Two passages in the proposed Wheeling County ordinance reinforce the simple truth that clean air is everyone's right: “Where the need to breathe smoke-free air conflicts with the desire to smoke, the need to breathe smoke-free air shall have priority.”

“In any dispute arising under this regulation, the concerns of the non-smoker shall be given precedence.”

The Wheeling-Ohio County Health Board should fulfill its duty to protect all the public. Apply the smoking ban everywhere, including Wheeling Island and video-lottery rooms. That would serve the public and set an example for other governing bodies, including the Pennsylvania Legislature, which exempts Keystone State casinos from smoking bans that apply to every other business.

The health board is scheduled to meet at noon Nov. 10 in the city-county building in Wheeling. By law, no smoking is allowed there.

Philly woman wins $10,000 prize for voting

A Philadelphia woman won $10,000 in an election “lottery” last week.

Bridget Conroy-Varnis received $10,000 from The Philadelphia Citizen, an online news site that offered the prize to encourage voter turnout. The elections were for mostly local offices, and turnout is historically low.

A Citizen report said polling place No. 919 was randomly chosen from 1,686 sites in the city, as well as a random time: 6:36 p.m. Conroy-Varnis was the first voter to emerge from that polling place after that time. Conroy-Varnis said she would pay off bills, donate some of the money to charity and perhaps buy a used car.

Mark Gruetze is the gambling columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at p layers@tribweb.com.

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