Pennsylvanians kept on gambling during smoking ban By Mark Gruetze, CDC Gaming Reports July 1, 2021 at 7:21 pm So much for all those platitudes about protecting the health of Pennsylvania casino customers and workers. On June 28, the state lifted an indoor mask mandate that had helped slow COVID-19, which is spread by respiratory droplets. As welcome as the repeal is for almost everyone, the move returns another respiratory threat to the gaming floor: secondhand smoke. With masks no longer required, smoking is allowed again in the casino, the most illogical and dangerous exemption to the state’s Clean Indoor Air Act of 2008. Pennsylvania law allows smoking on up to 50 percent of the gaming floor, but the Gaming Control Board ruled that the mask mandate would take precedence as long as it was in force. From the time the COVID threat became understood, health officials, government leaders, and business executives pledged to do everything possible to protect residents and employees. Casinos throughout Pennsylvania were closed for more than 12 weeks starting in March 2020, then for three more weeks in December, covering Christmas and New Year’s. In addition to the mask mandate and no-smoking addendum, now-familiar COVID safeguards became standard: reduced visitor capacity, fewer slot machines in operation, fewer table games and fewer player spots, no live poker, no buffets, and limited alcohol and restaurant service. Other businesses took similar precautions; those steps and an enthusiastic response to the COVID vaccines brought Pennsylvanians close to what passes for normal. Shutterstock If the state’s government and gaming leaders are serious about protecting people’s health, this version of normal should not allow smoking in casinos. Casino revenue for the first five months of this year, covering the period when vaccines first become available and people began venturing out more often, is instructive. One side effect of the pandemic was forcing each Pennsylvania casino to test how customers reacted to a smoking ban. Casinos’ bottom lines prove people like it – or, at the very least, it didn’t matter. People go to casinos to gamble, not to smoke. From January through May 2021, Pennsylvania casinos totaled $1.22 billion in gross slot and table-game revenue on-site, where the smoking ban and capacity limits were in effect (50 percent for January through March, 75 percent in April and May). To be clear, that figure does not include online wagering, sports betting, daily fantasy sports, or truck-stop VGTs. In the first five months of 2019, the long-ago days before COVID, slot and table-game revenue totaled $1.39 billion. Pennsylvania casinos went on to set a record high for gross slot and table- game revenue that year. So even while casino traffic was severely limited, in-person slot and table-game revenue was 88 percent of what it was in record-setting 2019. Two casinos opened despite the pandemic. Live! Pittsburgh, a “satellite” casino with 750 slots and 30 table games about 45 minutes from the city, opened in November. The $700 million Live! Philadelphia, which has 1,923 slots and 162 table games plus a hotel, opened in January. The two combined for about $116 million in gross slot and table-game revenue from January through May. For those five months, people had to wear face masks in all Pennsylvania casinos. They gambled anyway. They couldn’t get alcohol at slots or table games. They gambled anyway. They couldn’t smoke in the casino. They gambled anyway. Now, after months of concerted efforts to protect public health on the casino floor, the state and casino operators effectively ignore a critical safety step. Pennsylvania, the number-three state in commercial gaming revenue and number-one in gaming-tax revenue, should join the 20 states that already ban smoking in gambling venues. Even before lawmakers update the Clean Indoor Air Act, casino operators should join the more than 200 individual venues nationwide that became smoke-free after the pandemic shutdown. The dangers of secondhand smoke are well established. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explain that it contains about 70 cancer-causing chemicals and can lead to coronary heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer in nonsmokers. “Any exposure to tobacco smoke can cause both immediate and long-term damage to the body,” says the 50th U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health. “There is no safe level of exposure.” Because of those threats, Pennsylvania bans smoking in virtually all workplaces and buildings where people gather. It’s not allowed in restaurants, bars, open-air stadiums, bingo halls, or dozens of other categories of public sites. The state prohibits smoking in casino restaurants, entertainment venues, meeting rooms, and back-of-house workspaces. Casinos voluntarily ban smoking in poker rooms, sports books, and cashier areas. Players and workers on the gaming floor must have the same protection.