A legislative committee approved for the first time Wednesday a bill that would ban smoking inside Pennsylvania casinos, but its vote along party lines made clear the measure is a long way from passage.
House Health Committee Chairman Dan Frankel’s proposed Protecting Workers from Secondhand Smoking Act (HB1657) was sent to the full House by a close vote with all Democrats supporting it and all Republicans opposed. Democrats have a majority in the House by a narrow margin, while Republicans who control the state Senate have yet to show any interest in expanding smoking bans.
Much of the basis for the bill results from an exemption for casinos in Pennsylvania’s Clean Indoor Air Act of 2008, which allows smoking on up to 50% of gaming floors, and GOP members of the Health Committee voiced no concern about sending gamblers to the casinos’ outdoor patios if they want to light up.
Their objection was to also eliminating the Clean Indoor Air Act’s exemption for private clubs — most notably veterans organizations — which they termed “government overreach.”
“I have to honor those veterans … and their freedom to choose what steps they want to take or not to be in a smoke-free environment. This is not about the cigarettes to me, it’s about the freedom to choose,” said Rep. Kathy Rapp, the ranking Republican on the committee, who added she generally supports the bill and is hopeful a compromise can be reached on how to address private clubs prior to a full House vote.
Just two of 17 casinos have voluntary bans
While many states include casinos under public smoking bans adopted as a health issue in recent decades, Pennsylvania and some others — including neighboring New Jersey — carved out exemptions due to industry concerns that too many gamblers who smoke would quit visiting to play slots and table games.
Of Pennsylvania’s 17 casinos, 15 allow smoking on half of the gaming floor or close to it. Only Parx Casino, which operates the state’s biggest revenue-generating casino in suburban Philadelphia and a smaller one in central Pennsylvania, opts voluntarily to keep its facilities smoke-free. During the COVID pandemic, the state imposed an indoor smoking ban temporarily in all of the casinos.
Parx officials have found no harm to revenue from continuing the policy, a point emphatically made by PA CEASE, an advocacy group for casino workers statewide that is supporting Frankel’s bill. Frankel, a Pittsburgh Democrat, has proposed the legislation in multiple sessions, but this is the first time it received a committee vote, as it is the first time in many years that Democrats have been the majority party in the House.
Jennifer Rubolino, a Rivers Pittsburgh table games dealer who is administrator of PA CEASE, said in a statement after the committee vote, “Today is a great day in our fight for a healthier workplace and we won’t stop fighting for this legislation until we can finally breathe smokefree air at work. We urge lawmakers to pass this bill when it comes to the House floor because no one should be forced to choose between their health and a paycheck.”
New Jersey action could have an impact
In urging support for the bill from colleagues, Frankel stressed that 2023 is a far different era for smoking issues compared to when the original act was passed 15 years ago.
“Most Pennsylvanians don’t smoke and don’t want to be exposed to smoke,” he said. “Today we have the opportunity to vote to put thousands of Pennsylvanians out of harm’s way so they can do jobs that offer good pay and benefits and with the chance to advance without sacrificing their health.”
More than 15,000 individuals work in Pennsylvania’s 17 casinos. The industry collectively reaped $3.4 billion from the combination of smoking and non-smoking patrons who played slots and table games in the most recent fiscal year.
While there was little direct mention of casinos in the committee’s discussion Wednesday, Frankel has noted in the past that it could help win enactment of a ban in Pennsylvania if New Jersey removes its own casino smoking exemption. Casinos in the Philadelphia area compete for customers with those in Atlantic City, and New Jersey lawmakers are considering voting to amend their state’s clean air act this month to make casinos smoke-free.
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