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Player's Advantage: Big gaming states share a sorry trait: smoking in casinos

| Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Thomas Carr, director of National Policy at the American Lung Association and primary author/editor of the group’s annual State of Tobacco Control report
Thomas Carr, director of National Policy at the American Lung Association and primary author/editor of the group’s annual State of Tobacco Control report

Gamblers and casino employees in the country's four busiest gambling states must contend with tobacco smoke that wouldn't be allowed in other workplaces or facilities open to the public, a study by the American Lung Association shows.

Nevada, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Louisiana, which together accounted for close to half of the nation's commercial casino gambling revenue in 2015, exempt casinos from statewide smoking regulations that apply almost everywhere else.

“We believe casinos should be included in smoke-free laws,” says Thomas Carr, director of National Policy at the American Lung Association and primary author and editor of the group's annual State of Tobacco Control report, released Feb. 3. “All workers and patrons deserve protection from second-hand smoke.”

Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have comprehensive no-smoking laws covering most workplaces and sites open to the public, Carr says. Casinos and bars are the most common exemptions to such bans.

The Lung Association has released a state-by-state report every year since 2003. The study grades each state on its smoke-free air regulations, funding for people to quit or avoid using tobacco products, the level of taxes on tobacco, and access to stop-smoking services. The big gambling states each received an F in at least two of the four categories:

Pennsylvania: C for smoke-free air; F in each other category. Casinos are exempted from the state's no-smoking law, and the report notes that the Legislature failed to remove exemptions last year.

Nevada: C for smoke-free air; F in each other category.

New Jersey: A for smoke-free air; D for tobacco tax level; F for funding tobacco prevention and access to cessation services.

Louisiana: B for smoke-free air; F in each other category. Unlike the other three states, Louisiana allows local governments to impose stricter smoking restrictions than the state's. Last year, New Orleans enacted a citywide smoking ban that includes Harrah's New Orleans casino. Health officials and others are urging a similar ordinance in Baton Rouge.

Pennsylvania allows smoking on up to 50 percent of the casino floor; New Jersey allows smoking on up to 25 percent. Of course, the smoke doesn't pay attention to any boundaries.

A ventilation system can scrub away the smell but not the toxins in second-hand smoke, Carr says. ASHRAE, a group representing heating, refrigeration and air conditioning engineers, says no current ventilation or air-cleaning technology can control health risks from tobacco smoke.

Casino executives say gaming areas deserve exemptions from smoking bans because smoking and gambling go hand in hand. The argument is that a smoking ban will cut gambling revenue, forcing layoffs and reducing tax payments that governments depend on.

Carr and Cynthia Hallett of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights say that, generally, the revenue impact of a casino smoking ban is overstated.

“The smoke-free law is not what causes the change in revenue,” Hallett says. “It's gaming saturation and the economy in general. When people don't have as much discretionary income, they're not spending it in a casino.”

In Hancock County, W.Va., a tougher anti-smoking law that took effect in July 2015 banned smoking at Mountaineer Casino. In the first seven months under the ban, Mountaineer's gaming revenue fell by 20.7 percent, even with the addition of a $2 million “smoking pavilion” offering slots and table games. But revenue had been declining before the ban because Mahoning Valley racetrack in Youngstown, Ohio, added slot machines the previous year. Ohio, by the way, bans smoking in casinos. So do Illinois, New York and Maryland.

Even when states exempt gaming floors from smoking bans, smoking usually is prohibited in casino attractions such as restaurants, hotel lobbies and entertainment arenas.

Gamblers and other casino workers deserve the same protection that people enjoy in other public buildings and workplaces.

As Carr says: “Everybody's lungs and all workplaces should be protected from second-hand smoke.”

Mark Gruetze is the Tribune-Review gambling columnist. Reach him at players@tribweb.com.

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