Stephanie Steinberg, chairwoman of the advocacy group Smoke-Free Gaming of America swears her decision to buy a condo at National Harbor had nothing to do with her work trying to get smoking banned in casinos across the country.
But with state officials expected to make a decision later this year about where in Prince George’s County to open the state’s sixth casino, Steinberg may find herself with a view of what would be a milestone in her efforts: the first smoke-free casino in the $9.7 billion empire of MGM Resorts International.
Smoking is already banned in Maryland casinos and will be not be permitted in the new Prince George’s facility whether it is run by MGM, Penn National Gaming or Parx.
MGM, however, is one of Steinberg’s greatest foils in her campaign to rid casinos across the country of smoke, making the company’s Prince George’s proposal a possible turning point in the nationwide battle over smoking in casinos.
The Las Vegas-based company employs more than 50,000 full-time employees and had $9.2 billion in revenue last year. In Nevada, it is the state’s largest private employer and its largest taxpayer. And none of its casinos, including more than 10 it owns or part-owns on the Las Vegas Strip, are smoke-free.
“They fight us tooth and nail in every state — every clean air law,” Steinberg said.
Founded eight years ago, Smoke-Free Gaming is a tiny operation, run mainly by Steinberg and volunteers. Until September she was living and working outside Denver, where she was a driving force behind state laws that now ban smoking in restaurants, bars and casinos.
Wanting to be close to the policymakers in D.C. and a major smoking battleground, Atlantic City, she opted for a condo in the waterfront National Harbor project that is one of three proposed sites for the state’s sixth casino. She says she bought it for its easy access to D.C. and New Jersey. “I opened the window and said, ‘oh that’s where the casino is going to be,’ ” she said.
If MGM wins, Steinberg said it gives her the chance to demonstrate to casino workers and state legislatures elsewhere that the company is perfectly capable of operating a successful smoke-free casino.
“We want them to be aware, wherever MGM operates, that MGM employees in Maryland get to enjoy a smoke-free environment,” she said. “They’re going to say that it’s an injustice!”
MGM says it is already doing all sorts of things to keep its staff healthy, including advanced air filtration systems, company-provided smoking cessation programs and free lunches for all of its employees. In Nevada, it operates smoke-free restaurants, per state law, and in Detroit it has created a glass-enclosed area around about 150 slots machines to keep smoke out.
MGM table game players can also request that players beside them not smoke.
“At our other properties, when you arrive at a table game, you can ask that the table be made non-smoking as long as the people who got there before you did agree to it,” said Gordon Absher, vice president of public affairs at MGM. The rule applies to customers only, not employees.
Steinberg argues that casino workers ought not be subjected to tobacco smoke any more than employees of restaurants or bars even though some states — including Nevada — have created exceptions to smoking bans for casinos. Seven states still have no smoking restrictions at all: Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi (where Steinberg’s only employee works), Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.
On top of the health benefits, advocates argue that casino companies ought to embrace smoke-free rules because of cost savings from health care plans, employees’ sick days, air filtration systems, replacement of felt table tops and cleaning of everything from the carpets to the drapes.
Absher said he was not aware of any savings MGM might reap from the company’s health care plan with a smoke-free casino. “I don’t have any statistics,” he said.
The other competitors for the Prince George’s license already have smoke-free casinos. Penn National Gaming runs the smoke-free Hollywood Casino in Cecil County, Maryland, as well as two in Ohio. Penn National spokeswoman Karen Bailey said the company considers that experience an advantage in seeking the license. “We’re the only ones in the running that have the actual experience in competitive gaming environments like this,” she said.
The Parx casino outside Philadelphia is half smoke-free and all of the company’s race operations are smoke-free. Spokesman Marc Oppenheimer said he didn’t expect any savings on health costs if it wins the license for Prince George’s but said the company could see lower energy costs, “since we won’t have to have as much fresh air brought into the building to clear out smoke.”
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