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Mountaineer workers fear smoking ban will harm 'livelihood'

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014, 10:42 p.m.
 

Officials in Hancock County, W.Va., a one-hour drive south of Pittsburgh, expect a full house on Wednesday night at a public hearing on a proposal to ban smoking in bars, clubs, casinos, outdoor community festivals and other venues.

If the five-member county health board approves the proposal, it would become the 28th of West Virginia's 55 counties to adopt a total ban on smoking in public places.

Employees from Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort, along the Ohio River in Newell, are among those opposed.

Some worry the casino that employs nearly 1,300 people will lose business and might lay off staff if the ban passes. The facility had a payroll of $26 million and paid $100 million in state and local taxes last year, they note.

“I just don't know how five people can (ban smoking). It's our livelihood,” said Lori Danver, who has worked at Mountaineer's slots parlor for 18 years.

Jackie Huff, health administrator for Hancock County, said the board has “50 years of surgeon general reports” documenting the dangers of smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke.

“We have the Mountaineer Casino here, and their job is to promote and protect the casino, while we in public health feel our job is to protect the health of every citizen in Hancock County,” Huff said.

The idea of a ban outrages Eddie Majoris, who operates a shopping plaza in Weirton and regularly visits Mountaineer.

“Isn't this communism? If they do that, this place will lose big time,” Majoris said.

Although fewer than 20 gamblers were smoking cigarettes on a recent weekday evening, Mountaineer employees worry they'll lose loyal players.

There are eight casinos within 100 miles of Mountaineer. About 36 miles south, the Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack won an exemption from Ohio County's smoking ban. In Pennsylvania, smokers can light up while gambling at The Meadows Racetrack & Casino in Washington County and Rivers Casino on Pittsburgh's North Shore.

Juanita Advani, of Akron, Ohio, bypasses smoke-free casinos in Ohio to come to Mountaineer “at least once a month.”

“It's my body. You take away the smoking, and I'm not coming back,” Advani said. She said she would go to Seneca Allegany Resort & Casino in southern New York, which permits smoking.

Cynthia Hallet, executive director of Americans for Non-Smokers Rights, said studies show that going smoke-free enhances business at bars and casinos.

“This is an age-old argument. Business, at worst, remains the same — or better — after these places go smoke-free. Four out of five gamblers don't smoke,” she said.

Steven Norton, a former casino executive and consultant to the gaming industry, said that wasn't the case when Illinois banned smoking on riverboats.

“An analysis I prepared covers the immediate 12-month period after the ban in January 2008. The result was a 21.8 percent casino revenue decline, 14.1 percent fewer patrons, a 9 percent decline in per-capita win and a 32.8 percent reduction in casino taxes,” Norton said.

Mountaineer General Manager Chris Kern acknowledged that America seems to be going increasingly smoke-free but said that West Virginia may not be ready for that yet. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show 28 percent of adult West Virginians smoke — a ratio second only to Kentucky's 28.3 percent of adult smokers.

Mountaineer has smoke-free restaurants, a smoke-free slots parlor and just spent $900,000 on an air cleaning system, Kern said.

In nearby Chester, retiree John Hissam, commander of the local American Legion post and chief of the volunteer fire company, is against a ban, even though he doesn't smoke.

“If no-smoking goes through, we'll probably lose about 15 to 20 percent of our business (at the Legion). There is no if, and or but about it; that will happen,” he said.

Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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