Making the News

Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Originally Published:Sunday, April 20, 2008

A close observer of the Atlantic City casino scene, Joseph Weinert, of Spectrum Gaming Observer, said the move for smoke-free casinos isn't a complete surprise, because both the New Jersey Legislature and Atlantic City Council have been talking about it for a while.

But obviously, he added, "It is a significant development."

Mr. Weinert also has been keeping on eye on Pennsylvania's young but growing casino industry, which already has caused a drop in gaming revenue in New Jersey.

If Atlantic City casinos have to ban smoking completely, he said, "I would think that would make it easier for Pennsylvania to include casinos in a total ban on smoking in workplaces in Pennsylvania."

Smoke-free forces may get N.J. boost
All eyes on Atlantic City council vote to ban smoking

By Tom Barnes
Pittsburgh Post Gazette

HARRISBURG -- Anti-smoking forces that want Pennsylvania casinos to be smoke-free are on the verge of getting a big lift from an unexpected source -- casinos in Atlantic City.

Earlier this month, the Atlantic City Council gave unanimous, preliminary approval to a measure that would prohibit smoking on all casino floors for the first time since the popular shoreline resort legalized gambling in the late 1970s.

A final vote could come as early as Wednesday on the smoke-free legislation, which is strongly supported by Atlantic City Mayor Scott Evans.

But the ban on smoking in Atlantic City gambling parlors wouldn't take effect until Oct. 15 to give the casinos time to add new interior smoking lounges where there would be no slot machines or table games. A smoker who felt the need to light up would have to leave the slot machines or table games and go into one of the special smoking lounges.

A close observer of the Atlantic City casino scene, Joseph Weinert, of Spectrum Gaming Observer, said the move for smoke-free casinos isn't a complete surprise, because both the New Jersey Legislature and Atlantic City Council have been talking about it for a while.

But obviously, he added, "It is a significant development."

The New Jersey Legislature enacted a ban on workplace smoking in the Garden State in April 2007, but allowed a partial exception for casinos. As of now, smoking is still permitted on 25 percent of a gaming floor.

Mr. Weinert also has been keeping on eye on Pennsylvania's young but growing casino industry, which already has caused a drop in gaming revenue in New Jersey.

If Atlantic City casinos have to ban smoking completely, he said, "I would think that would make it easier for Pennsylvania to include casinos in a total ban on smoking in workplaces in Pennsylvania."

That is certainly what Diane Phillips, of the American Cancer Society, is hoping for when a six-member House-Senate conference committee meets on April 29 in Harrisburg.

Their goal is to enact a bill to ban smoking in workplaces and public places, but there is still wide disagreement on whether to totally ban smoking in places such as bars, taverns, restaurants, cigar bars, private fraternal clubs and casinos.

Ms. Phillips said that what Atlantic City does "should affect what happens in the Pennsylvania Legislature. The Atlantic City Council is looking at the fact that it's more important to protect the health of casino patrons and employees than it is to protect the casinos' bottom line."

But Bill Godshall, of Smokefree Pennsylvania, isn't too optimistic. He said four members of the conference committee -- Sens. Charles McIlhinney, R-Bucks, and Bob Mellow, D-Lackawanna, and Reps. Ron Miller, R-York, and Bob Belfanti, D-Northumberland -- favor a lot of exceptions to the smoking ban.

Only Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, and Rep. Michael Gerber, D-Montgomery, favor a tough smoking ban, Mr. Godshall said.

The most important provision of a new law, Mr. Godshall contended, is "local option," meaning the Legislature should permit towns, cities and counties to enact local laws that are tougher anti-smoking measures than the state law.

"Why should the state prevent Allegheny County from protecting the health of the workers at the Pittsburgh casino?" he said.

Mr. Gerber, who is strongly anti-smoking, said he's hoping the Atlantic City action does influence the Legislature.

He said Pennsylvania casinos claim that if the Legislature bans all smoking in casinos, "it would put them at a competitive disadvantage with other states, especially New Jersey.''

But with Atlantic City casinos smoke-free, "It takes away the argument that a smoking ban in Pennsylvania will cause gamblers to go to Atlantic City."

Not surprisingly, casino forces don't see it that way.

"What happens in Atlantic City changes nothing for The Meadows,'' said David LaTorre, a spokesman for the Washington County casino and harness track. "Atlantic City isn't our competition."

Meadows officials worry about the two casinos in northern West Virginia, which now have table games and allow smoking. Pennsylvania casinos don't have table games.

From 1996 until June, when The Meadows opened its temporary slots casino, Meadows officials watched customers drive past their facility on their way to the West Virginia casinos, and they fear the same thing would recur if the state forces them to ban smoking on the gaming floor.

"Our competition sits just half an hour away," Mr. LaTorre said. "West Virginia has legalized table games and allows their casinos to set their own smoking policies."

Pennsylvania's slots law, passed in 2004, generates money to lower residential property taxes and to boost the horse-racing industry. "Both of these goals would take a severe hit" if revenues drop because gamblers are going to West Virginia, he added.

Eric Schippers, a spokesman for the 2-month-old Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course near Harrisburg, agreed. Although Delaware racetrack/casinos are smoke-free, he said that Indian casinos in Connecticut and New York, as well as the West Virginia casinos, still allow smoking.

He said "the market," not the Legislature, "should dictate what the proper balance is between serving both our smoking and nonsmoking customers."

He said the Hollywood casino, like every other gaming parlor in the world, "is in the hospitality industry," catering to people who want to play the slots as well as dine, drink, watch horse races and see live shows.

The casino industry, like all other industries, wants to make a profit, and that means giving customers what they want, he said.

"It just make sense for us to accommodate both our smoking and our nonsmoking customers,'' he said.

He said that in Illinois, where Penn National has three casinos, business has dropped about 20 percent since Illinois banned smoking at casinos on Jan. 1. A similar ban in Colorado, where Penn National has one casino, has produced the same results.

As for its employees at the new casino near Harrisburg, he said, "We offer them the ability to work in nonsmoking sections of the casino if they want to."

Mr. Miller said he's aiming for a bill that balances the rights of smokers and nonsmokers. The experience from other states, as well as the desires of Pennsylvania residents and businesses, "all play into what we will do and it's all part of the picture," he said.

It's important for the committee to write the bill correctly, he added, because whatever bill it approves cannot be amended on the floor of the House or Senate. It must be voted up or down just as it comes out of committee.

"It's of little value for us to craft a bill that's dead on arrival in either chamber," he said. "We want something that will make Pennsylvania public places as smoke-free as we can get."

Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at [email protected] or 717-787-4254.
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