Revenues decline slightly at casinos

But too early to cite smoke ban as cause

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One nonsmoker with emphysema, Claire Colbert of Cranberry, is elated with how much cleaner the air seems at The Meadows Racetrack & Casino since smoking restrictions took effect Sept. 11.

Another player in her 60s, Patti Gotch of Peters, says allowing smoking at 25 percent of the machines is still too much. She found the air quality intolerable to stay beyond an hour on a recent visit.

On the other hand, Mike Graninger, the general manager of The Meadows, is wondering how much of the facility's shrinking revenue in the past two weeks is due to smokers bothered by the state's new Clean Indoor Air Act. His casino and others are likely in December to apply for a chance to increase the smoking area to as much as half of the slots floor.

The economy, gasoline prices and the weather are among other factors that can influence casino visits, but a clear picture of the smoking restrictions' impact should emerge Dec. 10. On that date, 90 days after the law took effect, casinos can seek a report from the state Department of Revenue showing whether their smoking-permissible machines are generating more revenue than those in nonsmoking areas. If so, they could be permitted by the gaming board to increase the size of their smoking area, possibly to half the floor space.

"We're going to petition for everything we can get," said Mr. Graninger, who said the new limits force some smokers to seek out favorite games in other parts of the casino, where they can no longer light up. Then they get up again when they're eager for a smoke.

"Every time they're away from the machines," he said, "it's costing us money."

Such are the mixed reactions in casinos in the early days of the state's new anti-smoking law, approved by lawmakers in June for public health reasons after resisting it for years. Casinos successfully lobbied to avoid a total ban, arguing that gaming revenue dropped sharply in some states when gamblers were no longer permitted to light up inside. Officials at The Meadows, in Washington County, worried that a ban would send most of their smokers to rival casinos in West Virginia, which imposes no smoking limits.

Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board figures covering the seven operating casinos' finances last week offered the first possible sign of how limiting smokers to 25 percent of machines might have an impact. Statewide, the $388.9 million wagered last week was off 4.8 percent from the week of Sept. 8-14, during which the restrictions took effect. And wagering in the second week of September dropped 5.9 percent compared to Sept. 1-7, when casinos received a boost from people playing on Labor Day.

Last year, when just five slots parlors were operating, the volume of wagering statewide dropped 8 percent the second week of September, but remained at that level the following week.

"It is early [to fairly evaluate], but we are down, and we still have our same promotions and everything," Mr. Graninger said this week, though acknowledging the industry typically has a drop-off in customers at summer's end.

Richard McGarvey, a gaming board spokesman, said of the effect of smoking limits, "There's just not enough history to know at this point." It would take more than two weeks with the restrictions -- and more than two years of comparisons of annual trends -- for a proper analysis, he said.

Jim Wise, a spokesman for the Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs casino, said it implemented the smoking limits early, upon opening its permanent casino July 17. Officials there quickly realized there was more demand for the smoking-permissible machines than the others, he said. The smoking area is bringing in more revenue per machine, Mr. Wise said, though he declined to give figures on the extent of the difference.

In December, he said, "If the figures indicate a clear imbalance, I believe we would make a request" to permit more smoking.

At The Meadows, the primary smoking section was established near the front entrance, which might inflate the amount of play those machines receive compared to others. Mr. Graninger said the arrangement has enabled conversion of a rear room of the temporary facility to one almost entirely non-smoking.

Ms. Gotch, however, doesn't like it. She still felt on a recent visit like she couldn't escape the fumes, as people walked from place to place with lit cigarettes. "If I do go back, I'm sure I wouldn't stay more than an hour," she said.

Ms. Colbert, who avoided The Meadows before the new restrictions took effect, reacted differently. The former pack-a-day smoker uses a portable oxygen tank to assist her breathing, and now feels able to keep the smoke of others at a distance.

"I don't begrudge anyone the right to do what they want to do," she said. "I just don't want to sit next to them, that's all."


Gary Rotstein can be reached at grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.


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