The coronavirus pandemic put an immediate stop to many things aside from the “normal flow” of our daily lives. Handshakes. Blowing out candles on birthday cakes. Smoking in Pennsylvania casinos.
After being forced to close in mid-March 2020, Pennsylvania casinos started to reopen in early June. Under the new health and safety guidelines, smoking at Pennsylvania casinos was temporarily banned. Previously, casinos could allow smoking on up to 50% of the square feet of the gaming floor.
Smoking at casinos has been a divisive topic well before COVID-19. As smoking has sunk to the lowest rate in decades, many wonder why it’s still allowed at Pennsylvania casinos. Mask-wearing mandates made it impossible to light up at the slots. But now, with masks not required indoors if you are fully vaccinated at some Pennsylvania casinos, will smoking return?
Is smoking allowed at Pennsylvania casinos?
No. There is currently no smoking at PA casinos. All casinos in Pennsylvania have designated areas set up outside for smoking.
Upon casinos reopening in June 2020, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, in concert with guidelines for mask-wearing at the state’s casinos, put a no indoor smoking rule into effect.
“Currently, that remains in effect but we are monitoring the situation in relation to any additional changes in guidelines that would enable complete relief of mask wearing,” said PGCB Director of Communication Doug Harbach.
PA rep introduced bill to close smoking loophole
In Feb. 2020, Representative Dan Frankel (D – Allegheny) introduced a bill that attracted 19 co-sponsors, to amend the Clean Indoor Air Act. In part, it would close the loophole that allows casinos to permit smoking.
His sponsorship memo reads in part:
When Pennsylvanians return to their jobs in the entertainment and hospitality industries, many will come with the lasting consequences of a COVID-19 infection. This development makes it more important than ever to join a growing number of states that have permanently banned smoking in workplaces….Therefore, I will be re-introducing legislation to close the loopholes found in the Clean Indoor Air Act, including those that allow smoking in outdoor spaces, casinos, cigar bars, cigar lounges, private clubs, and drinking establishments.
HB2298 was never brought to a vote last session.
In Jan. 2021, Rep. Frankel announced plans to reintroduce the bill during the current legislative session.
States have banned smoking in casinos
Cynthia Hallett is president and CEO of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights. The organization’s purpose is to clear the air of second-hand smoke that is known to have chemicals, carcinogens and other fine particulate matter that is hazardous to lung and cardiovascular health.
Hallett penned various editorials, made appearances on news outlets and reached out to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board with a clear, consistent message.
“Pennsylvania should join 20 other states that have banned smoking in casinos by making the temporary ban permanent.”
According to the ANR, as of May 2021, at least 1,077 U.S. casinos and other gaming properties have 100% smokefree indoor air policies.
“People still come to play,” said Hallett. “The majority of the population doesn’t smoke. I know there is this perception that gaming and smoking go together. However, we have also seen from polls that individuals would be more likely to go to a casino if it was smokefree.”
Coronavirus and secondhand smoke
What Johns Hopkins Medicine says about secondhand smoke and the spread of coronavirus:
“Secondhand cigarette smoke is known to cause health problems, and although there isn’t yet scientific proof that it can spread the coronavirus and cause COVID-19, at least theoretically it’s a possibility. Secondhand smoke can propel viruses into the air from the nose and throat,” said Panagis Galiatsatos, M.D., M.H.S.
Coronavirus health and safety guidelines forced casinos to see what it was like without smoking. All of PA’s brick-and-mortar casinos set up designated smoking areas outside.
“COVID can be transmitted through airborne respiratory droplets. The public is now keenly aware of how a public health policy can protect them and the population from a preventable disease. There is an expectation now. People want to be able to go into an environment they feel is clean and safe,” commented Hallett.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) referred to smokefree casinos as a “silver lining” of the pandemic:
Brian King of the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health:
“If all these casinos remain smokefree even post Covid-19, this could have an immeasurable (impact) in terms of not only protecting the public who attend these venues, but also workers who are working eight hours or more per day in these environments.”
Pennsylvania casinos report record revenue
Pennsylvania casinos employ about 20,000 people. A survey shows overwhelming support for smokefree among avid slot players.
“We know it can be done. Business and revenue is still good even at reduced capacity,” said Hallett. “We know the people will come to play and employees will have a healthier work environment. It’s a win-win.”
For the second consecutive month, revenue for Pennsylvania casinos topped $400 million according to a report from the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. Pennsylvania is one of the few states, for now, that offer iGaming. However, brick-and-mortar-casinos, through table games and slots, contributed to the majority of the revenue. In March and April, Pennsylvania casinos operated at reduced capacity. Most PA casinos only resumed drink service on the gaming floor in April.
- April revenue at PA casinos slots and table games: $279.2 million
- Percentage of total PA gaming revenue: 69%
- March revenue at PA casinos slots and table games: $270.6 million
- Percentage of total PA gaming revenue:67%
“People who smoke will come back inside,” pointed out Hallett. “I understand that we need to be in the period of economic recovery and we fully support that. These casinos have been smokefree and have been doing well on limited capacity. I believe they will continue to do well as they increase their capacity and people come back.”
“A cultural shift”
Hallett has worked in tobacco control and public policy for over 30 years. She remembers when airlines pushed back about banning smoking. And when bars thought they would go out of business if they went smokefree.
“This is just a cultural shift. It will protect public health and it can work,” Hallett says of casinos adopting a permanent smoking ban. “With respect to people who smoke, I get it. All we are asking is for them to take it outside and smoke in ways that don’t harm others with respect to the second-hand smoke and the possibility of transmitting colds and viruses through respiratory droplets.”
What about ventilation?
Casinos tout their state-of-the-art ventilation systems. However, don’t let it lull you into a false sense of security.
Chris Pritsos, director of the Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of Nevada and author of a number of studies on secondhand smoke in casinos commented:
“The particle size of the constituents of smoke are so small that these air filters don’t do a thing. They might knock it down 10% or so, but that does not stop the harmful effects.”
Thank you for not smoking
In 2005, Aaron Eckhart starred as Nick Naylor, the star spokesman for Big Tobacco in Thank You For Smoking.
Hallett read the book and saw the movie.
Eckhart, as Naylor, stars as the handsome, charming, smooth-talking spokesman who aims to make you forget he works for big tobacco or that cigarettes are deadly.
If they ever make a sequel, Hallett should star opposite Naylor. She won’t step down from a fight or from people who may complain that smoking and slot machines just go together.
“We now have a federal court ruling where the tobacco industry was found to be adjudicated racketeers who lied to the public about how addictive cigarette smoking was,” said Hallett. “They lied to the public about the hazards of second-hand smoke and targeting kids to start smoking. This is an industry that knowingly and willingly made a product that was highly addictive and lied to people about it.”
When electronic cigarettes came out, some felt that the ANR were being zealous since they weren’t combustible tobacco and it was just vapor with no nicotine.
“Now we have the information that Juul lied about nicotine in vaping liquid and targeting kids,” said Hallett.
Lead image credit: AP Photo/Wayne Parry