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Pa.'s rule on casino smoking 'simply doesn't work'

| Sunday, June 18, 2017, 9:00 p.m.

Pennsylvania's 50-50 rule on casino smoking spaces fails for an elementary reason, says a scientist behind numerous studies of gaming areas.

"Drawing a line on the floor (between smoking and non-smoking areas) simply doesn't work, because the smoke does not know where to stop," biophysicist James Repace says. "It's governed by the laws of physics, so it will diffuse right over the line."

Pennsylvania's Clean Indoor Air Act, which took effect in 2008, bans smoking in workplaces and places open to the public, including open-air athletic facilities such as Heinz Field and PNC Park. However, an exemption allows smoking on up to 50 percent of the gaming area of each of the state's 12 casinos, even though casino restaurants and affiliated venues must be smoke-free.

Through the state Gaming Control Board, Player's Advantage obtained floor maps showing the smoking and non-smoking areas of 10 Pennsylvania casinos. A spokesman for SugarHouse in Philadelphia said a floor map for that casino was not available, and Harrah's Philadelphia did not respond to a Player's Advantage request.

The drawings show that, in general, nonsmoking table-game and slot areas are grouped together, although that was not always the case. In 2015, for example, Presque Isle casino in Erie reconfigured its floor so all nonsmoking areas are contiguous. That project included designating one entrance as nonsmoking.

Poker rooms are traditionally nonsmoking, and they count toward the 50 percent requirement.

The issue of smoking in casinos is getting extra attention now because of a bill by state Rep. Matt Baker, R-Bradford County, to remove the casino exemption, and almost all others, from the Clean Indoor Air Act. Similar measures have failed in the past, and Baker says a vote on the bill has not been scheduled.

Repace, an international consultant on secondhand smoke who has published more than 80 scientific papers, says his studies show that the percentage of casino visitors who smoke is about the same as the smoking population for the area in general. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 18 percent of adult Pennsylvanians smoke, which means about a fifth of people visiting Pennsylvania casinos smoke, based on Repace's findings.

That one-fifth poses a threat to the other four-fifths of the visitors as well as to the dealers, servers, security guards and other gaming floor workers whose livelihoods depend on the casino.

"Pennsylvania casino workers and patrons are put at significant excess risk of heart disease and lung cancer from (secondhand smoke) through a failure to include casinos in the state's smoke-free workplace law," says Repace's 2009 study involving casinos in Wilkes-Barre, Philadelphia, North Strabane and Erie. He found that air inside the casinos had four to six times more particulates and carcinogens than the outside air. Another of his studies, this one covering 66 casinos in five states, found that secondhand smoke readily infiltrates nonsmoking casino areas such as restaurants.

Those findings are still valid, he tells Player's Advantage from Bowie, Md.

Deborah Brown, president and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic, says the best way to protect casino patrons and workers from being exposed to toxic levels of secondhand smoke is to eliminate it.

"Remember that there are people whose jobs and livelihood are dependent on working in that casino," she says. "It's unfortunate that people still have to choose between a paycheck and being exposed to secondhand smoke."

Casino executives typically argue against smoking bans, saying they reduce revenue and jobs. Repace and Brown counter that many companies – including several with operations in Pennsylvania – have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to open successful smoke-free casinos in other states. Twenty states ban smoking in commercial casinos, and four of them border Pennsylvania: Ohio, New York, Maryland and Delaware. The city of New Orleans and Hancock County, W.Va., home to Mountaineer Casino, also ban smoking in casinos.

Repace acknowledges executives' concern but says "it just doesn't make sense" because so many smoke-free casinos are profitable. "It doesn't make sense in the health of the workers, that's for sure," he adds.

Even though the percentage of casino visitors who are smoking at any one time might be small, "it will pollute the air a lot," Repace says. "Cigarettes, pipes and cigars just make a helluva lot of smoke."

Mark Gruetze is the Tribune-Review's gambling columnist. Reach him at

Local players cash in at WSOP

More than a dozen Western Pennsylvania players finished in the money at tournaments in early events at the 48th World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

This year's WSOP, with 74 gold-bracelet events, began May 30 and runs through July 17. Local winners included:

Event 4, Omaha High-Low, $1,500 buy-in, 905 entrants: James Chen of Pittsburgh, 10th place, $13,008; Bryce Fox of Reserve, 46th, $4,027.

Event 5, Colossus No-Limit Hold 'Em, $565 buy-in, 18,504 entrants: Terry Zitzman of Saxonburg, 132nd; $6,195; Manh Nguyen of Homestead, 235th, $4,418; Sean Davis of Plum, 389th, $3,780; Richard Tatalovich of Pittsburgh, 742nd, $2,235; Paul Huh of Pittsburgh, 1748th, $1,018; Alexander Krisak of Indiana, Pa., 2,056th, $905; David Eldridge of Cranberry, 2,354th, $832.

Event, 8, Online No Limit Hold 'Em, $333 buy-in, 2,509 entrants: Frank Bonacci of Pittsburgh, 81st, $1,280.

Event 12, No Limit Hold 'Em, $1,500 buy-in, 1,739 entrants: Travis Hartshorn of Sarver, 204th, $2,440

Event 16, Six-handed No Limit Hold 'Em, $1,500 buy-in, 1,748 entrants: Justin Bushmire of Sturgeon, 247th, $2,247

Event 18, Pot Limit Omaha, $565 buy-in, 3,186 entrants: James Chen of Pittsburgh, 17th, $9,313; Frank Bonacci of Pittsburgh, 28th, $6,214; Yu Zheng of North Versailles, 266th, $1,025

Event 20, Millionaire Maker No Limit Hold 'Em, $1,500 buy-in, 7,761 entrants: Richard Tatalovich of Pittsburgh, 399th, $4,683; Chad Power of Pittsburgh, 433rd, $4,174; Stepan Gusak of Beaver Falls, 1,045th, $2,357; Mingyuan Xu of Pittsburgh, 1,158th, $2,249.

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