Anti-smoking advocates are objecting to legislation that would let gamblers smoke inside the new MGM casino complex at National Harbor — something that is illegal in every other Maryland casino.
The exemption is part of a bill that would set the liquor license terms at the casino once it opens in the last three months of this year. The bill would allow at least one cigar lounge of up to 2,000 square feet where drinks may be served.
The American Lung Association and others want that provision stripped from the legislation. They say it would be unhealthy for casino employees and unfair to other businesses.
"It puts the health of those casino workers at risk," said Bonita Pennino, government relations director for the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network. "That worker is in there for an eight-hour shift, so they're exposed to cigar-smoking for eight hours straight."
The bill, introduced by the Prince George's County delegation to the House of Delegates, is before the House Economic Matters Committee. Members of the committee are expected to try to remove the provision from the legislation, which some say must pass if the casino is to open on time.
Maryland's existing casinos, like other establishments in Maryland that serve alcohol, fall under the no-smoking provisions of the state's Clean Indoor Air Act. Anti-smoking groups say the law should apply to the MGM casino, which state voters authorized in a hotly contested 2012 referendum.
Meanwhile, businesses that include restaurants and liquor dealers are opposing the provision for their own reasons.
Melvin Thompson, senior vice president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said the proposed MGM smoking exemption is unfair.
"If we're going to make this exemption for a cigar lounge in a casino, we should also broaden it to other businesses who also might be interested in such an exemption," he said.
It is unclear whether the bill would limit the number of cigar lounges to one for the entire resort and casino, or one per bar, restaurant or other business that rents space. According to the Department of Legislative Services, Prince George's County estimates that there would be eight to 12 such concessionaires.
Del. Dereck E. Davis, the Prince George's Democrat who heads the Economic Matters Committee, said he has taken a "hands-off" approach to the smoking exemption.
"I've heard some concerns about the provision, and I've heard some people who are supportive of it," he said.
A subcommittee is expected to consider the bill Monday.
Del. Jay Walker, chairman of the Prince George's County delegation, said allowing smoking would attract customers to the casino, which is expected to be a significant revenue generator for the state.
Walker, a Democrat, said he knows of buses that stop in his district every day to pick up gamblers and take them to the casino in Charles Town, W.Va., which permits smoking indoors.
At a hearing last month, Walker told the committee the cigar lounges would be in a "well-insulated, well-ventilated area," away from where people are gambling. Pennino said that while a ventilation system might be able to remove obvious traces of smoke, it could not remove all of the toxins released into the air.
Some Prince George's delegation members said they did not know about the smoking provision and that it was not mentioned when the measure was presented to them.
Smoking is not permitted in Maryland's other casinos — Maryland Live at Arundel Mills mall, the Horseshoe Baltimore, Rocky Gap Casino Resort in Western Maryland, the Casino at Ocean Downs near Ocean City and the Hollywood Casino Perryville.
The Horseshoe and Rocky Gap casinos have permission to operate outdoor smoking areas. The companies that run the Horseshoe and Maryland Live, the Maryland casinos closest to National Harbor, declined to comment on the issue.
MGM said in a statement that it has "no plans to include a cigar lounge in the design for MGM National Harbor."
"The resort remains compliant with Maryland's smoke-free law," the company said. "We at MGM National Harbor are dedicated to ensuring a safe, healthy and comfortable environment for our employees and guests."
The company declined to say whether it knew how the smoking language got into the liquor license bill.
When Walker testified for the bill, he was flanked by MGM general counsel Michael Pappas. Pappas did not discuss plans for the cigar lounge, but was present when Walker answered questions about it.
In an interview, Walker said MGM knew about the proposal.
"I didn't do it without talking to them, but it's not their priority," he said. He declined to comment further.