No Action Taken On Smoking Ban in Ohio County

Businesses stress potential loss of income

A patron smokes while gambling at a local limited video lottery parlor.

WHEELING — The Wheeling-Ohio County Board of Health took no action on its current clean air regulation Tuesday, but three new board members expressed concern for the potential economic impact of an expanded smoking ban.

The board held a special meeting to discuss the countywide clean indoor and outdoor air regulation, which contains an exemption that allows smoking in specified areas at Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack and in limited video lottery rooms.

Kim Florence, president and general manager of the casino, told the board a smoking ban could cost the facility a projected $17.5 million in annual revenue, based on losses experienced at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort after smoking restrictions were imposed in Hancock County in 2015.

She said such a loss would have “three times the impact of the loss of greyhound racing,” which could have occurred if Gov. Jim Justice had not vetoed a bill eliminating breeders’ funding earlier this year.

Florence said that 140 of 600 jobs at the casino would be at risk if a smoking ban were imposed.

“Wheeling Island pays $18 million in payroll every year in this community,” she added. “My purpose is Wheeling Island needs stability. We want to maintain revenues and continue to grow. I ask that no changes be made and our facility continues to maintain its exemption.”

She said the casino contributes $50 million in annual gross revenue to the state, $1.3 million to Ohio County and $500,000 to the city of Wheeling. She said those amounts don’t include property taxes paid by the facility.

In the first year of Hancock County’s smoking ban, Mountaineer Casino’s revenues dropped $25 million, representing a decline of 19.2 percent, Florence said. For the year ending June 30, Mountaineer’s income dropped $4 million, or 4 percent, she said.

Florence said 71 employees work in a smoking environment on the casino’s gambling floor. If workers have a problem with secondhand smoke, they can be reassigned to the casino’s non-smoking area, but only about a dozen have requested a transfer in the past 14 years, she said.

David Shriver of Action Gaming Inc., a Wheeling firm that supplies and services gambling machines in limited video lottery rooms, also spoke at the meeting. He said some video lottery rooms have clean air systems that ionize the air to make it cleaner than in bar areas or on the street.

After hearing the speakers, Dr. John Holloway, board chairman, told fellow board members, “I’m not looking for a vote today. … I suggest we decide what to do with this at our next meeting.”

The board’s next regular meeting is scheduled for noon Nov. 14 at the City-County Building.

David Croft, who joined the board in July, cited “tension” in the state code’s charge to health boards between community health promotion and environmental health protection. He said, “Economic health can be correlated with physical health. … It’s hard not to look at the economics of what gaming revenue does for the community.”

Christian Turak, who also joined the board in July, asked, “Are safety benefits worth the economic impacts?”

Wheeling Councilman Chad Thalman, who represents the city on the health board, said Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack provides close to $1 million, including property taxes, to the city annually, with most of the money going into the city’s pension fund. Terry Sterling, who joined the board in September, said, “That revenue is very important to the city.”

Holloway, who is a practicing physician, said there is no question that secondhand smoke causes health risks.

“There are definitive health benefits to having clean indoor and outdoor air regulations,” he said. “These regulations are to protect people in the workplace.”

Health Officer Dr. William Mercer said Delaware North, which owns the Wheeling Island facility, operates a couple of non-smoking casinos.

“It can be done,” Mercer said.