Smoking while gambling? Elaborate patios allow it at casinos, racinos

Health advocates say the patios push the envelope of the indoor smoking bans while operators say they comply with the law.

Casinos and racinos in the Dayton region and across Ohio are investing millions of dollars into high-end “patios” where guests can smoke and gamble, even though state law prohibits indoor smoking.

Health advocates say the patios have “pushed the envelope,” but casino and racino officials say they comply with the law. The state agency that oversees the indoor-smoking ban said the enforcement system is complaint-driven and it wasn’t consulted about construction of the patios.

Hollywood Gaming at Dayton Raceway opened its second smoking patio in December with 120 slot machines on 4,700-square-feet and under heat lamps and exhaust fans.

“You don’t have to go outside in the cold. You can sit here and play the machines,” said Jim Cordova, of Miamisburg, as he smoked and held a Budweiser on the patio on Friday.

“It’s very important. Number one, it keeps us here longer and that’s in the best interest of the racino,” said Kelly Bozeman, of Dayton, who was smoking and playing the slots on the new patio Friday.

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The patios are bracketed by two walls of the main building and a ceiling. The open areas are covered by screens that can be raised or lowered to help keep the heat in and limit sun glare. And a 12-foot high wall stands about four feet from the screens, providing security and limiting the windchill.

Cigarette smoke hangs in the air.

“We’re not using the exhaust fans right now just to keep the heat in,” said Dan Kennedy, general manager of the racino. “You’re right, there is smoke out here. The state law is on indoor smoking. This is an outdoor patio.”

Hollywood Casino Columbus, owned by Penn National Gaming, recently opened its third and most ambitious smoking patio and is now advertising “smoking permitted” on its TV commercials. The newest smoking area features more than a dozen flat screen TVs, heat lamps, a full bar, hundreds of slot machines, security cameras and full roof and the same screens that can be raised or lowered.

“The whole idea is to design an area where people can smoke that also complies with state law,” Penn National spokesman Bob Tenenbaum said. “These are multimillion dollar projects.”

Three of the four casinos have smoking areas with a combined 640 slot machines while all seven of the racinos have them with a combined 1,557 video slots.

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The Ohio Lottery Commission oversees the state’s seven racinos, including two in the Miami Valley, and the Ohio Casino Control Commission oversees the state’s four casinos. The Ohio Department of Health enforces the state’s 2006 voter-approved indoor smoking ban law, which allows restaurants and bars to permit smoking on open air patios and decks.

“The casinos have pushed the envelope with that, obviously with their own legal guidance,” said Jeff Stephens of the American Cancer Society, Ohio chapter.

“There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. It causes stroke, lung cancer, and coronary heart disease in adults. Ohio has a comprehensive smoke-free law that prohibits smoking in all indoor areas of workplaces, restaurants, and bars, which has been in effect since 2006,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

In 2017, 21.1% of Ohio adults smoked cigarettes, above the national rate of 13.7%.

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Enforcement of the state law is complaint-driven. The state health department has received 106 complaints and 66 enforcement cases about smoking at racinos and casinos between 2007 and 2019. Those resulted in nine warnings, two fines of $100 and one fine of $500. A dozen of the enforcement cases involved patios.

“The Ohio Department of Health has no record of ever having been contacted by the Ohio Casino Commission to consult with casinos on their outdoor patios,” health department spokeswoman Megan Smith said.

In his first year in office, Gov. Mike DeWine took steps to curtail Ohio’s relatively high smoking rate. He has pushed for a ban on flavored vaping products and successfully increased the tobacco purchase and use age to 21, up from 18.

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