Up in Smoke: Push for Smokefree Casinos Gaining Momentum, But Political Support Still Lacking in PA

Written By Kevin Shelly on October 8, 2021 - Last Updated on October 9, 2021
Casino stakeholders call for permanent ban on smoking

Politics in Pennsylvania for now means the majority of the state’s casinos – 10 out of 14allow smoking in designated areas inside.

Casinos allowing smoking as of Oct. 8:

  • Rivers Casino Pittsburgh
  • Lady Luck Nemacolin
  • Wind Creek Casino
  • Harrah’s Casino Philadelphia
  • The Meadows
  • Valley Forge Casino
  • Presque Isle Downs
  • Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course
  • Live! Casino Pittsburgh
  • Hollywood Casino York

Casinos not allowing smoking indoors as of Oct. 8:
(Smoking is permitted in designated outdoor spaces)

  • Parx Casino
  • Mount Airy Casino
  • Rivers Casino Philadelphia
  • Live! Casino Philadelphia

PA legislature not focused on closing indoor smoking loophole

That equation is unlikely to legislatively change soon, according to Daphne Rutter, chief of staff for Pittsburgh’s Rep. Dan Frankel. He is the minority leader on the Health Committee.

The Western PA Democrat had introduced HB 2298 to change a loophole in the state’s Clean Indoor Air Act which allows smoking in casinos. However, it has long languished in his committee without bi-partisan support.

Given the lack of Republican support, and also since PA is now in the early jostling stages of the gubernatorial race, there’s no rush for the rest of the calendar year, said Rutter.

Rutter said the majority party controls the legislative schedule. “They are holding back the tide.”

“Public health is not a priority for the Republican Party. If we get Republican support, we’re off to the races!” she added.

Opposition growing among casino employees, customers

Frankel’s office was hit with “a ton of letters” when the state mandate was lifted this summer, mainly from casino employees but also from customers, said Rutter. Poker players, in particular, were annoyed, she added.

Also languishing, apparently due to an intra-party division among Republicans according to sources on both sides of the aisle, is a promised legislative fix to PA’s unlicensed gaming device proliferation.

Gov. Tom Wolf‘s office said Friday, “The Administration would welcome a discussion about updating the Clean Indoor Air Act.”

The loophole exception in PA also includes cigar lounges, private clubs, and drinking establishments where alcohol – not food – is responsible for most sales.

Politics in PA focused on next November’s race for governor

There are maybe a dozen possibilities on the Republican side and a single as-yet undeclared Democrat, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, in the governor’s race. None of the candidates appear to have a stated position on closing the loophole allowing smoking inside casinos.

That’s a depressing reality for casino employees such as Michael Danay, a multi-games dealer at Live! Casino Hotel Philadephia. Danay suffers from chronic asthma.

He recently wrote an opinion piece for the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation asking for legislative action.

Smoking barred at Live! and Rivers by local mandate

While Live! Casino and Rivers Casino Philadelphia currently do not allow smoking, that’s not due to the state but because of an order from the Philadelphia Health Department.

Because it is a local COVID-19 measure, Danay knows that smoking can quickly return to the gaming floor.

He has seen that happen already. When a state virus mandate went away before July 4, smoking returned to Live! But then Philadelphia instituted its no indoor smoking mandate, and the ashtrays went away.

“It was a rough day when they brought it back,” said Danay, who carries a rescue inhaler at all times.

“Smoking is an enormous burden on me. We know it is coming back when the city changes the policy. I’m hoping they keep the mandate as long as possible. I feel like I’m a lone wolf in the wilderness.”

A spokeswoman for Live! said: ” When restrictions are lifted, we do plan to re-allow smoking on 25% of the floor.”

On the other hand, Glenn Cademartori, Vice President of Marketing for Mount Airy said of their decision to remain smoke-free for now:

“The health and well-being of our team members is of paramount importance to us at Mount Airy Casino Resort. As a result, we have temporarily suspended indoor smoking privileges. The feedback from our team members has been overwhelmingly positive.”

Nine states across the country do not allow smoking, including neighboring Maryland. Live!’s parent company, Cordish, owns a casino there.

Just this week Go Erie, the hometown newspaper for Presque Isle Downs and Casino, ran an op-ed calling for the elimination of the smoking loophole in casinos.

The piece concluded:

“Casinos across the commonwealth and the country should prioritize public health and protect their patrons by implementing indoor smoking bans — once and for all.’

Smoking in casinos a recent focus at G2E in Las Vegas

“Workers should never have to choose between a paycheck and their health,” said Cynthia Hallett, head of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, during a Tuesday press conference at the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas.

Hallett continued:

“Indoor smoking is a pre-COVID relic that should not return. Pennsylvania casinos have been thriving while operating smokefree, and the CDC has called smokefree policies enacted over the last 15 months a ‘silver lining’ of the pandemic. It’s misguided and dangerous to revert back and put the health of gaming employees and guests at risk.

“We are calling on Pennsylvania’s elected officials, including Governor Wolf, to support legislation to close the casino loophole and make casinos permanently smokefree indoors. Our request is simple: just move smoking outside, like every other business in society.”

According to Hallett:

“At least 160 sovereign Tribal gaming venues have implemented 100% smokefree policies during COVID-19. Half of all states require commercial casinos to be smokefree indoors, and nearly 1,100 gaming properties do not permit smoking indoors.”

Casino employees in Atlantic City form “CEASE” advocacy group

Hallett was joined on Tuesday by Atlantic City casino workers who have banned together to create a group of non-smoking advocates. Their group, C.E.A.S.E.Casino Employees Against Smoking’s (Harmful) Effects – has more than 2,000 members and is looking to grow into additional states.

More information, including on an upcoming rally at Harrah’s Atlantic City, can be found on the CEASE facebook page.

Lead image credit: AP Photo/Brian Branch-Price

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Kevin Shelly

Kevin C. Shelly is an award-winning career journalist who has spent most of his career in South Jersey. He's the former assistant city editor of The Press of Atlantic City, where he covered the casino industry and Atlantic City government as a reporter. He was also an investigative, narrative enterprise, and features reporter for Gannett’s Courier-Post.

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