SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois House voted Tuesday to lift a smoking ban in all of the state’s casinos during a debate that pitted the health of bettors and casino workers against hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenues.
The proposal, which passed 62-52 and now moves to the state Senate, represents a significant softening of the state’s 2008 anti-smoking law that banned tobacco use in virtually all indoor public areas.
“Ladies and gentleman, if we’re serious about our budget crisis in Illinois, let’s be real. This is not about the smoking issue. This is about the money,” said Rep. Dan Burke (D-Chicago), the bill’s House sponsor.
Burke said the smoking prohibition has cost the state $800 million in lost casino-tax revenues since the imposition of the ban and has caused East St. Louis, home of the Casino Queen, to lay off municipal workers.
Burke said getting rid of the ban in the state’s casinos would put Illinois’ gambling venues on par with casinos in neighboring states that allow bettors to smoke. Under his legislation, the ban would be re-imposed if any border states barred smoking in casinos.
But opponents argued that other states have added casinos, which partly accounts for Illinois’ sliding casino tax revenues, and that carving out an exemption for casinos will embolden other businesses, like racetracks, bars and restaurants, to seek furthern exemptions that would weaken the statewide smoking ban.
“It’s a slippery slope,” said Rep. Karen Yarbrough (D-Maywood), who was the chief House sponsor of the 2008 anti-smoking law.
Yarbrough said allowing smoking in casinos will put the health of casino workers at risk.
“Why are their lives any less important than people who work anywhere else?” she said. “I didn’t hear any debate about what kind of increased costs in terms of hospitals and health care costs as a result of going back to what we did before. I hear the argument on one side about this being about the money, but we’ll spend more if we allow this practice,” she said.
A report by the General Assembly’s Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability characterized the indoor smoking ban as “the biggest contributor” behind a 28-percent decline in casino revenues since January 2008.
That 2010 report also noted casino revenues for Chicago-area casinos dropped by nearly 33 percent since the smoking ban was implemented, while gambling receipts for four neighboring Indiana border casinos fell only .4 percent during that same period.
“We have to provide these legitimate business enterprises a competitive playing field,” Burke said.
After Tuesday’s vote, an American Lung Association official angrily accused Burke of having “blatantly lied” in presenting the bill to House colleagues when he said Indiana had passed an anti-smoking prohibition that exempted casinos. In fact, Indiana has not done so.
“Since when do we lie blatantly during House floor debate to pass a bill in Illinois?” said Kathy Drea, the American Lung Association’s vice president for advocacy.
Burke later said he did not deliberately attempt to mislead House colleagues and that he had been given erroneous information about Indiana from a representative of Illinois’ casino industry.
“I don’t think it was compelling enough to persuade the 62 who voted for this,” Burke said.
By BY DAVE MCKINNEY Sun-Times Springfield Bureau