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Lawmakers weigh expanding Pa.’s indoor smoking ban to protect casino workers

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Lawmakers weigh expanding Pa.’s indoor smoking ban to protect casino workers

Sep 20, 2023 | 5:54 pm ET
By Peter Hall
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Lawmakers weigh expanding Pa.’s indoor smoking ban to protect casino workers
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State Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, speaks at a news conference Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023, where he announced legislation that would close loopholes in Pennsylvania's Clean Indoor Air Act to end smoking in casinos and other establishments where it remains legal. (Pa. House Democrats photo)

Fifteen years after Pennsylvania banned smoking in most public places, a Pennsylvania lawmaker wants to close the loopholes that allow patrons to smoke in casinos and some other establishments, to protect workers’ health.

State House Health Committee Chairman Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny), held a hearing on Wednesday where casino dealers, gaming and health experts testified about the negative health effects of secondhand smoke that casino workers breathe at work.

Although representatives of Pennsylvania’s $5.5 billion gaming industry did not testify, at least one other business owner said banning tobacco smoking would have an impact on other types of establishments such as private clubs and cigar bars. The effects ranged from a drop in patronage to immediate closure. 

Frankel cited a National Institutes for Health study released after the Clean Indoor Air Act became law in 2008that projected that six out of 10,000 casino workers would die of heart and lung diseases each year, a rate higher than that for mining disasters. 

“Pennsylvania’s workers should not have to sacrifice their health for a paycheck, but the data shows that’s exactly what’s happening,” Frankel said.

Jen Rubolino said she has worked as a table games dealer since 2019 and was excited about the job when she started because she is a night owl and never liked working in an office. The casino job paid well and offered benefits but she didn’t think about secondhand smoke until she was leaning over a table of smoking gamblers. 

“This is what goes on every day for thousands of casino workers eight hours a day, 40 hours a week as they go to work to make a living,” Rubolino, a founding member of Casino Employees Against Smoking Effects, said.

Rubolino said many casino workers have made long-term careers as dealers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that prolonged exposure to secondhand smoke increases a person’s risk of health problems such as asthma, emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

And although Rubolino was able to be assigned to a non-smoking section of her casino because she uses an inhaler, the process was not easy and doesn’t prevent exposure to secondhand smoke entirely. 

There is no existing air filtration system that can reduce the risk of health effects from indoor environmental tobacco smoke to acceptable levels, Bill McQuade, of the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers, testified. 

The organization develops standards for indoor environmental quality and holds the position that the only way to avoid health effects of tobacco smoke is to ban all smoking inside and near buildings. 

But while a gaming industry expert said casinos would likely see only a temporary decline in revenue after a smoking ban, others said prohibiting smoking in public would be devastating to their businesses.

Greg Fox, co-owner of online cigar retailer and wholesaler Global Marketing Inc. in Luzerne County, said his business moved to Pennsylvania from New York 25 years ago because of the commonwealth’s lack of tax on cigars. It has since expanded to operate a cigar pub which he described as a “cigar destination” with fine dining.

“The only way we can determine the quality of a cigar is to smoke it. By banning all indoor smoking, HB 1657, would make it unlawful for us to perform essential quality control steps,” Fox said. “We’d be forced to consider moving our business again. This time outside of Pennsylvania.”

Deb Brown, chief mission officer for the American Lung Association, said that when the original Clean Indoor Air Act was passed, the association said publicly that the law was not the most protective and lawmakers said they would revisit the legislation to make improvements.

Since Pennsylvania passed its indoor smoking ban with exceptions for casinos, 22 other states have banned smoking entirely in public places including casinos, Brown said.

“While it might be too late to go back to protect some workers who have endured another 15 years of exposure to secondhand smoke, it is not too late for us to act now,” Brown told members of the Health Committee. “You have an opportunity long overdue to finally protect not just some but all Pennsylvania workers from the well documented dangers of secondhand smoke.”