There are fresh efforts underway in Illinois to seriously weaken its present comprehensive statewide smoke-free air law by allowing smoking back into casinos. It’s reassuring to know that it faces stiff opposition, and not just from Kathy Drea of the ALA of Illinois, who has been a staunch defender of the present law. The following report notes that Gov. Pat Quinn, for one, is also opposed to such an exemption.
ASSOCIATED PRESS | Posted: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 12:15 am | Comments (3 as of May 11, 2011, 8:18 am)
HAMMOND, Ind. • Clutching his Marlboro, Clifford Hutchison works a slot machine unaware of his role in a desperate competition to balance state budgets.
The retired maintenance worker from Chicago could have sought his fortune at any of the casinos in northeastern Illinois. But he decided to drop his quarters at the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Ind., partly because that state allows gamblers to light up unhindered — something Illinois has banned since January 2008.
“It relaxes me,” he said of smoking.
Some legislators would like to lure Hutchison and his cigarettes back to Illinois. As cash-strapped governments grasp for every quarter, the state is among several contemplating loopholes in smoking bans to keep more gamblers — and their money — from slipping across the border.
An Illinois Senate committee could deliberate today on a bill to allow smoking in casinos so gamblers don’t escape to Indiana, Iowa and Missouri.
Casino owners blame the bans for the loss of millions of dollars in revenue and the subsequent fall in tax receipts. The American Gaming Association estimates that 20 percent of casino patrons smoke.
But smoking opponents say the loss claims are exaggerated and the loopholes are bad health policy. The Illinois bill passed the House 62-52, but faces stiff opposition from key senators and Gov. Pat Quinn.
“It’s discrimination against the people who work in casinos,” said Kathy Drea, vice president of advocacy for the American Lung Association in Illinois.
The Illinois bill tweaks the 2008 ban by permitting smoking in casinos as long as it’s allowed in neighboring states. State Rep. Dan Burke, a Chicago Democrat who sponsored the bill, voted for the smoking ban, but said “unintended consequences” warrant an amendment.
Casino operators and other backers of the bill point to studies from 2008 and 2009 showing what they purport to be the ban’s negative effect on business. While also noting the overall economic slump, the American Gaming Association, the Illinois Gaming Board and the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis each reported that casino receipts in Illinois fell by about 20 percent in 2008 — the year the ban was passed. The Illinois Casino Gaming Association’s Tom Swoik estimates that the state taxes casinos would have paid are down $771 million over three years. He said casinos would accept an exemption that allows smoking on the gambling floor but keeps restaurants and bars smoke-free.
In the St. Louis area, a half dozen casinos compete for business, including the Casino Queen in East. St. Louis, and another upriver in Alton. The Casino Queen’s operators say they’ve lost about 20 percent of revenue since the Illinois ban took effect. They also weren’t helped by the opening of the Lumière Place casino in St. Louis, as well as another Missouri casino where smoking is allowed.