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Player's Advantage

Mountaineer architect predicts all casinos will go no-smoking

| Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016, 11:30 p.m.
John Stewart
James Moses
John Stewart

One day, American casino gamblers will be able to play without the health risk of secondhand smoke, says the founder of the company that designed and built a unique smoking pavilion at Mountaineer casino.

“I think eventually all casinos will be (smoke-free),” says John Stewart, president and CEO of Encompass Develop, Design & Construct in La Grange, Ky., near Louisville. In a phone interview, he notes that people have grown accustomed to smoking bans in most restaurants and many hotels.

“Remember that doctors used to smoke in their doctor's offices,” he adds.

The issue of smoking comes up with every type of casino project, Stewart says. “The whole casino world continues to evolve, and this is one piece of that.”

Stewart says casinos must know their customer base when considering nonsmoking projects, but he cautions against counting on air cleaners as a solution. ASHRAE, a trade group of ventilation engineers, says no technology can clean smoky air.

“There's a lot of different technologies that are out there,” Stewart, a nonsmoker, says. “but there's nothing better than fresh air.”

In many cases, state and local smoking bans, such as the Hancock County measure that led to the smoking pavilion at Mountaineer in Chester, W.Va., apply to casinos. Nevada and Pennsylvania, which are No. 1 and 2 in gambling revenue, allow smoking on the casino floor. Twenty other states – including Ohio, Illinois and Maryland, where MGM's $1.4 billion National Harbor Casino is due to open in December – forbid it.

Mountaineer's $2 million smoking pavilion opened in July 2015, the day a tougher countywide smoking ordinance took effect. Stewart, whose company has completed several such projects across the country, says the Chester facility was the largest and the only one with table games.

Mountaineer executives did not respond to requests for comment about the smoking pavilion. However, the Morning Journal in Lisbon, Ohio, reported that casino consultant Ted Arneault asked the health board this month to allow smoking at businesses with video lottery games. He cited declining earnings and the loss of nearly 300 jobs in the past year. State figures show Mountaineer had $32 million in gross gaming revenue from July through September this year, down from $34.9 million in the comparable period last year.

Signs of the battle over smoking vs. nonsmoking in casinos abound throughout the country. Outside September's Global Gaming Expo, the annual Las Vegas event, when manufacturers exhibit new slot games, a group of dealers picketed in favor of a smoking ban. Inside the Expo, a company showed off indoor smoking cabins that could be placed in casinos, and the American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation had a booth to talk about ways to transition to smoke-free gambling floors.

At some point, lawmakers and casinos must acknowledge that exempting casinos from smoking bans that other businesses must follow is just plain wrong. As casinos have expanded across the United States, they have become integral parts of their communities, employing thousands of people, generating billions in taxes and providing entertainment for millions who enjoy trying their luck. Studies show that casino visitors are pretty much a microcosm of American society.

Nationwide, 85 percent of adults are nonsmokers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC found that 63 percent of adults have never smoked, and 22 percent have quit smoking.

In Pennsylvania and other states that allow casino patrons to light up, poker rooms are typically smoke-free because of customer demand. So are several Las Vegas sports books, including the Westgate, billed as the world's largest. Poker players and sports bettors are among the most ardent gamblers on the planet.

Casinos looking for ways to attract the next generation of gamblers should cater to a group that grew up understanding the health risks of smoking and comfortable with restrictions on where to partake.

As Stewart noted, there's no substitute for fresh air.

Mark Gruetze is the Tribune-Review's gambling columnist. Reach him at PlayersAdv@outlook.com

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