What’s wrong with this picture?

The picture we’re talking about is the floor plan you see below. It’s MGM’s plan for a tobacco store/cigar lounge to be opened inside the MGM National Harbor complex along the “Retail Promenade,” very near the main entrance to the casino.

This floor plan is important because MGM is asking Prince George’s County to approve what amounts to an exemption to the Maryland Clean Indoor Air Act that prohibits smoking inside commercial facilities. Notice that MGM is asking a county to exempt it from a state law.

MGM tried to get approval for an exemption in early 2016 as part of a bill the state legislature needed to pass in order for the casino to open, but that effort failed due to aggressive lobbying by the American Cancer Society and other opponents of smoking in public facilities. Stripped of language related to the cigar lounge, the bill passed and the MGM National Harbor Casino complex opened in December of that year.

Flash forward to 2019 and it’s looking good for MGM. Turns out that Prince George’s County offers an exemption from the state’s no-smoking law for cigar lounges in which no more than 49% of the floor area is used for “incidental purposes” such as food and beverage services. So, here’s MGM’s trick… Build a cigar lounge inside the MGM National Harbor building, butt-up against the casino, which the county will approve, making it convenient for casino customers to take a smoking break without wandering too far from the gaming tables – and then hope that the state doesn’t intervene and remind the county that it doesn’t have the authority to override state law.

Above, according to MGM, is how the cigar lounge space breaks down.

To obtain approval of the cigar lounge exemption, there are three hurdles MGM must clear. The first is approval by the county’s Department of Planning. Done. On the recommendation of it’s “Staff Report” dated October 24, 2018, the Department of Planning approved MGM’s plans for a cigar lounge. They approved the application without benefit of legal advice to confirm their authority to do so. And they did it, having accepted, without expert testimony to the contrary, that the air filtration system MGM has promised will eliminate the dangers of secondhand smoke to casino employees and customers alike.

The second hurdle is the forthcoming Zoning Hearing Examiner’s hearing. The third hurdle is consent by the County Council.

Okay, consider the following…

1. The front door to the cigar lounge comes into the retail shop – off which there is a door leading to the smoking area. Even if that door to the smoking area automatically closes as soon as people walk through it, smoke will make its way out the front door to be inhaled by people walking up and down the retail concourse.

2. There appear to be no permanent interior walls or sealed doorways dividing the “Seating Area” from the “Bar” and from the rear entrance where people will be coming and going from the “High Limit” section of the casino proper. There’s nothing, in other words, to prevent contaminated air from making its way into the casino.

3. In effect, by virtue of its very close proximity to the main entrance of the casino and to the doorway to the high limits gaming area, this cigar lounge is a smoking area for the casino, the way restaurants used to have “smoking sections” before the Clean Indoor Air Act was passed. As such, the 49% cap for incidental uses does not apply when you include the high limits gaming area and the balance of the casino floor. For this reason alone, the county, let alone the state, should deny the exemption.

4. The American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, citing various highly respectable technical sources, disagrees emphatically that MGM’s special air filtration system will resolve the health hazards related to secondhand smoke.

5. What’s to protect the health of the casino staff that will be serving and cleaning the cigar lounge? That will be coming and going from the casino? Is the MGM liable for any poor heath – from lost days at work to serious heart and lung disorders – that lounge staff may experience?

6. What signage and other notices are there going to be – in the cigar lounge, the retail promenade and in the casino – warning customers and the staff about the dangers from secondhand smoke and reminding lounge customers, in particular, not to smoke outside the lounge itself?

7. What are the implications for approval for the return of smoking areas in restaurants and bars throughout the county and elsewhere in Maryland?

Rejecting MGM’s application for an exemption to the Clean Indoor Air Act should be a common sense no-brainer. But then this is Prince George’s County where MGM has had, to date, a very special relationship. On the other hand, there’s a new County Executive and State’s Attorney. Who knows? Maybe they will bring constituent-friendly local government back.

Still no word from the Attorney General’s office as to what it might do.

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