PA Casinos Get A New, Perhaps Clearer Look At The Smoking Picture In COVID’s Wake

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State Rep. Dan Frankel likes the smoking ban that has been imposed on Pennsylvania casinos for the first time ever due to COVID-19 concerns.

The only problem is the Pittsburgh Democrat would like to see the prohibition in place a lot longer, but his legislation to do that, HB 2298, has seen no action since its introduction five months ago.

It seems destined for the same fate as other legislative attempts over the past decade to amend Pennsylvania’s Clean Indoor Air Act of 2008, which carved out exceptions — or what Frankel prefers to call “loopholes” — from smoking bans for casinos and certain other establishments.

Such attempts to broaden the ban never even reach a vote in the state House and Senate, and Frankel says opposition from the casino industry has been a factor.

“They have an active lobby that was very effective when carving out that exemption when first passing the legislation, and they’re pretty effective in tamping down efforts to change it,” Frankel said.

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Wearing mask and smoking don’t mesh

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board did not itself cite health concerns when imposing an unprecedented smoking ban on casinos July 3.

Officials characterized it as more of a practical application of a state Department of Health order requiring masks to be worn indoors at all places of business, as a way of containing a rising wave of coronavirus cases in the state.

If someone’s smoking, they can’t be wearing a mask while doing it. Thus, casinos began setting up designated smoking areas on patios and in parking lots and instructing patrons to use those if they wanted to light up.

It is not the only casino state that formerly allowed smoking to begin taking such steps recently. New Jersey and Michigan are among others.

And as usual, there are proponents for both sides: smokers who believe they’re unreasonably losing their freedom to practice and enjoy their longtime behavior, and non-smokers who delight in what they deem a cleaner, safer environment.

“It’s always a big topic in the industry,” Skyelar Perkins, corporate senior director of slot operations for Choctaw Casinos & Resorts in Oklahoma, told CDC Gaming Reports in a recent article about the trend of states and casinos reducing allowable smoking during recent COVID-era reopenings.

The tribal casino had been in the midst of a months-long test of the impact of smoking vs. no-smoking rules at its gambling facilities when the study was interrupted by coronavirus shutdowns.

“It’s kind of hard to gauge stuff right now, because the consumer patterns aren’t anything like what they were,” Perkins said in the article.

Split among states on smoking is nearly even

Under the 2008 law, smoking is permitted on up to 50% of the gaming floor of a Pennsylvania casino. Their air filtration systems are supposed to circulate and clean the air so as to minimize whatever impact the smoke would have on patrons and employees.

The extent to which other states with commercial casinos have similar policies is, well, all over the map.

The American Gaming Association’s annual State of the States report shows that casinos in nine states are smoke-free by government order, while 10 states place no restrictions on smoking. And then, there are five others like Pennsylvania with partial restrictions.

Nevada has long been a trendsetter when it comes to gambling operations, and it has never imposed a smoking ban, although some properties on their own are setting certain limits in the COVID era — on table games players, in particular.

Industry executives have long made the point that their revenue is tied to accommodating patronage by both smokers and non-smokers, and they don’t want to ban one in order to accommodate the other.

When asked about the current ban’s impact in Pennsylvania and whether it might prompt any reconsideration by the state’s casinos about smoking, Penn National Gaming spokesman Eric Schippers said it was too early to tell.

“We are all trying to figure out what the ‘new normal’ is from an operational standpoint,” said Schippers, whose company operates both the Hollywood Casino near Harrisburg and Meadows Racetrack & Casino south of Pittsburgh, in addition to many other casinos in both smoking and non-smoking states.

“We know historically that smoking bans can have a significant negative impact on revenue (typically 25% loss) but that is without an ongoing pandemic and mandatory mask policy, etc.,” Schippers continued in an email. “Just too speculative on many levels right now in terms of impact on business or customer behavior and what the future policy might be.”

Lawmaker worries about employees, too

Frankel said the debate shouldn’t be just about revenue and what patrons desire, but also about the health and safety of the thousands of casino employees across Pennsylvania.

“They shouldn’t have to take an employment opportunity with the risk of being exposed to second-hand smoke,” he said.

He said he not “an active gambler” but makes occasional casino visits, and he is not impressed by the requirements that supposedly keep half of the establishment smoke-free.

“I smell it every time when walking into the casino, and I think other people have that same reaction,” Frankel said. “I think so-called enforcement of that 50% floor ban is ridiculous. I see people with cigars walking all over the place.”

In general, he said he’s seen society in general shifting more and more since 2008 in the direction of smoking curbs, even if that attitude hasn’t filtered to colleagues in the legislature. Both chambers are Republican-controlled, and while there have been Republican sponsors and co-sponsors of legislation similar to Frankel’s over the years, he said the efforts have had trouble getting any momentum under GOP control.

“I would call this a common sense issue, but a lot characterize it as a progressive issue,” he acknowledged.

“I think it’s probably not on the list of priorities for my colleagues this session … but having this opportunity for casinos in Pennsylvania to operate smoke-free provides us with some information about the implications of doing that. It’s still mixed up with the whole COVID issue, so maybe you can’t get a real fair analysis of it, but maybe it helps lead to changes.”

Photo provided by Shutterstock

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Gary Rotstein

Gary is a longtime journalist, having spent three decades covering gambling, state government, and other issues for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in addition to stints as managing editor of the Bedford (Pa.) Gazette and as a reporter for United Press International and the Middletown (Conn.) Press. Contact Gary at [email protected].

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