Making the News

Allentown Morning Call

Originally Published:Thursday, September 11, 2008

Joe Weinert, senior vice president of New Jersey-based Spectrum Gaming Group, which tracks casinos nationwide, said Pennsylvania casinos need only look east to know they shouldn't count on those smoking expansions just yet.

'I suspect every eligible casino in Pennsylvania will try to expand to 50 percent, but I also suspect they will all eventually be forced to go smoke free,'' Weinert said. ''It's the way things are going. Like it or not, they're going to have to deal with that just like everyone else.''

State casinos sniff smoking ban loophole
Slots: If machines for smokers make more money, area can be expanded.

By Matt Assad
Allentown Morning Call

Pennsylvania's leap into the smoke-free era may be catching some restaurant and bar owners off guard today, but casinos are already looking forward to expanding an exemption that allows some slots players to smoke.

When gamblers arrive in casinos across the state today, they'll find 25 percent of the slot machines open to smokers under Pennsylvania's Clean Indoor Air Act.

But some of the state's casinos are already looking ahead 90 days when they might be able to double the number of slot machines for smokers.

If casino operators can show that the slot machines where smoking is allowed are more profitable than those where it isn't, they can apply to expand the smoking area to as much as 50 percent of the casino floor.

It's an exemption to the smoking ban that casinos say is necessary to generate more revenues and state tax revenues, but one that smoke-free advocates believe goes way too far.

''Having a smoking section of a casino floor is like having a nonchlorinated section of a swimming pool. It's ridiculous,'' said Greg Hartley, assistant director of SmokeFree Pennsylvania. ''We held our nose and accepted it so we could get the rest of the law passed.''

Unlike most taverns, restaurants and cigar bars that have been scrambling this week to file their 14-page application for an exemption to the new smoking law, every casino has well-paid lobbyists who have been studying the law since it was proposed.

For Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course, outside Harrisburg, the law brings drastic changes to a casino floor that until today was 85 percent open to smokers. This morning at Hollywood, patrons were to be greeted with signs telling them which machines are for smokers, as well as maps pointing out the smoking and nonsmoking areas, said Hollywood spokesman Fred Lipkin.

Knowing the law was coming, Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs trimmed its smoking area from 40 percent of the casino floor to 25 percent when it opened its permanent casino outside Wilkes-Barre on July 17. Now, with six weeks of gambling in the reduced smoking area on the books, it is already looking toward expansion.

''We have no numbers to point to yet, but anecdotally, the smoking machines appear to be busier,'' said Mohegan Sun spokesman Jim Wise. ''Based on what we've seen, we may want more.''

Under the new law, an application to expand the number of slots where smoking is allowed does not require casinos to prove that money is being lost or that there are not enough machines for smokers. The state Department of Revenue only needs to see that the machines for smokers are taking in more money than the nonsmoking machines.

For example, if machines where smoking is allowed take in 10 percent more, the smoking section can be expanded by that much. The maximum increase is 25 percent, for a total of 50 percent for smokers.

The law doesn't prevent casinos from packing their most popular machines into the smoking sections to drive up revenues, said Jim Schantz, legislative aide for state Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton.

''It will be interesting to see if casinos rig the smoking areas,'' Schantz said. ''I'm guessing we'll see smoking section expansion applications from every casino, but we'll see.''

Joe Weinert, senior vice president of New Jersey-based Spectrum Gaming Group, which tracks casinos nationwide, said Pennsylvania casinos need only look east to know they shouldn't count on those smoking expansions just yet.

When New Jersey went smoke-free in 2005, casinos were entirely exempt. But last year, Atlantic City, which hosts all 11 of the state's casinos, cut the smoking area to 25 percent of casino floors.

Then in April, after advocacy groups and casino employees protested, Atlantic City's council removed the exemption altogether. Starting Oct. 15, Atlantic City casinos will be smoke-free, though all of them will be permitted to have smoking lounges.

In Pennsylvania, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, who helped win passage of the ban, already is looking to plug the loopholes that remain. The Montgomery County Republican said Wednesday he plans to introduce a bill in January to amend the law and make the ban complete.

Any Pennsylvania gambler who thinks that can't happen here should know it already has. Legal battles have delayed the arrival of two casinos in Philadelphia, but once they're built, they'll be smoke-free by city ordinance.

''I suspect every eligible casino in Pennsylvania will try to expand to 50 percent, but I also suspect they will all eventually be forced to go smoke free,'' Weinert said. ''It's the way things are going. Like it or not, they're going to have to deal with that just like everyone else.''

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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