Wheeling City Council: County-Wide Smoking Ban Would Burn Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack

Health officials defend possible expansion

Photo by Casey Junkins
Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott said imposing a full ban on indoor public smoking in the city would hurt business at Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack. The city uses revenue from the track to help pay off police and fire pension debt.

Photo by Casey Junkins Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott said imposing a full ban on indoor public smoking in the city would hurt business at Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack. The city uses revenue from the track to help pay off police and fire pension debt.

WHEELING — City leaders fear an absolute smoking ban at Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack would cripple the business, but Wheeling-Ohio County Health Administrator Howard Gamble said the public deserves protection from secondhand smoke.

During Wheeling City Council’s meeting Tuesday, Councilman Dave Palmer and Tom Haluscak, president of International Association of Firefighters Local 12, spoke about the health board potentially removing exemptions for the track and limited video lottery establishments from the county’s public smoking ban.

“I find it very unfair that they want to change the rules again. I don’t see why it is necessary,” Palmer said. “I hope they keep things the way they are.”

“If this regulation is adopted, the city will lose money,” Haluscak added.

For many years, Wheeling has used money drawn from taxes on the track to supplement the city’s police and fire pension plan contributions.

“I would hope the health board would respect the concerns of the public and make no changes,” Palmer added.

Gamble said Tuesday the matter remains on the health board’s agenda. Members are scheduled to convene at noon May 9 on the first floor of the City-County Building, 1500 Chapline St.

“We know that smoking is bad for you. Secondhand smoke is also bad. We have an obligation to protect the public,” Gamble said.

Last month, council voted 6-1, with Councilwoman Wendy Scatterday in opposition, to send a resolution to the health board asking it to perform an economic impact study of imposing a complete smoking ban in the county.

Gamble said as of Tuesday, no action has been taken on such a study.

“A study like that would require us to reach out to a professional organization,” Gamble said. “They have asked us to do a small and narrow study on how these exemptions would impact the economy. Our job is to measure the potential health benefits of protecting the public from smoking.”

Palmer and Mayor Glenn Elliott cited revenue declines at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort after Hancock County instituted a sweeping indoor smoking ban as a reason for concern.

“I think the board of health should consider the economic impact of what they are doing,” Elliott said. “The numbers at Mountaineer have gone down.”

According to Eldorado Resorts Inc., which now owns Mountaineer, the casino reported earnings of $9.1 million from July 1-Sept. 30, 2014. On July 1, 2015, Hancock County imposed its smoking ban.

Earnings at Mountaineer from July 1-Sept. 30, 2015 were only $6.4 million, a decline of $2.7 million from the previous year’s third quarter when the smoking ban was not in place. Profits at the Chester track further slipped to just $4 million in the third quarter of 2016.

However, the Hollywood Gaming Mahoning Valley Race Course also opened near Youngstown, Ohio during this time, also impacting Mountaineer’s business.

“It is difficult to say for sure whether they (Mountaineer) were hurt more by the smoking ban or by the new casinos up there,” Elliott said.

Gamble said the only exemptions to Ohio County’s smoking ban are for “anywhere you can place a bet.” For example, the ban is already in place at the restaurants, lobby, hotel and other non-betting areas at Wheeling Island.

Limited video lottery machines are available at many clubs, restaurants and bars throughout Ohio County. A business qualifies for an exemption to the smoking ban if its machines are contained in a separate room that is closed off from the main area of the establishment, meaning one can only smoke if they are in the separated room.

“Once you allow an exemption, it’s hard to get rid of it because people get used to it,” Gamble said.

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