Monday, November 29, 2010

Smokers may get to light up in casinos

By Jamey Dunn

Legislators are considering two bills that would carve out exemptions in the state’s smoking ban for casinos in an attempt to recoup lost gaming revenue.

The House Executive Committee today approved House Bill 1850, which would allow smoking in specific ventilated rooms built inside casinos. The same committee approved HB1846 earlier in the veto session. That legislation would allow smoking inside casinos that are in direct competition with gambling facilities in states without a ban. If neighboring states passed a ban, the nearby Illinois casinos would lose their exemption from the smoking ban.

Rep. Andre Thapedi, the sponsor of the bill to allow smoking rooms in casinos, said he is trying to bring in money at a time when the state is facing a daunting financial crisis. Thapedi, a Chicago Democrat, said the state is losing $200 million a year from gaming revenues because gamblers are going to states that allow smoking. “I’m a nonsmoker. I’m also asthmatic. But I can count. And in my short time here, I know that we are $13.5 billion in debt. I’ve identified $200 million in lost revenue, and I’m trying to seize that revenue.”

Opponents say smoking and secondhand smoke cost the state billions because of health care expenses and lost productivity. They say discouraging smoking would actually do more to help Illinois’ bottom line.

Kathy Drea, public policy director for the American Lung Association of Illinois, said her organization has tested the air inside the East St. Louis Casino Queen, which claimed to have state-of-the-art air filtration systems. She said the air quality was still dangerous both times her group ran tests and only became safe after the smoking ban. She said workers should not be subjected to secondhand smoke inside the proposed smoking rooms, which has been proven to be dangerous and often deadly. Drea added that the quality of the casino itself has a lot more to do with its success than whether its patrons can smoke.

Rep. Dan Brady, a Bloomington Republican who cast the only vote against the bill, was critical of offering an exemption to casino owners who claim their business is damaged by barring smoking but continuing the ban on bars and restaurants, whose owners make the same claim.

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