Springfield, Ill. — The Illinois House’s vote last week to exempt casinos from the 2008 Smoke Free Illinois Act could lead to a first in the nation’s history - the first time a state has weakened a statewide smoking ban.
Thirty-five states prohibit indoor smoking in public places, Illinois among them. Some of those have exemptions for some establishments, including bars or casinos.
While some states have strengthened their smoke-free laws since their passing, none have gone back to repeal sections of such a law or to carve out exemptions, according to Americans for Nonsmokers Rights, a national anti-smoking lobbying group.
“In nearly every case, once laws (smoking bans) are enacted, they are extremely popular with the public and they don’t want to give them up,” said Annie Tegen, senior program manager for the group.
However, Illinois casino operators argue that this state’s ban has cost them millions of dollars in business - and the state to lose millions in taxes.
“They (state government) lost nearly $800 million (in taxes) in the first three years of the smoking ban,” said Tom Swoik, executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, which represents seven of Illinois nine riverboat casinos.
“If the trend continues, that could be $1.1 billion less in taxes after this year.”
The loss in gaming revenue is due to a combination of the smoking ban and the down economy, but Swoik said his most conservative estimate put the ban as the cause for at least half of the lost money.
During debate on House Bill 1965, which would allow smoking in casinos if the nearest state does, sponsor Daniel Burke, D-Chicago, said cities with riverboats have had to lay off firefighters and police due to revenue lost because people are traveling to other states that allow smoking to gamble.
Opponents of the exemption said the state has made up for the lost taxes in money saved on health care.
Since the Smoke Free Illinois took effect in 2008, hospitalizations for known tobacco-related heart conditions are down 9.3 percent, saving the state $1.8 billion, according to the American Lung Association in Illinois.
“There is no guarantee of revenues if smoking is allowed in casinos again,” said association vice president of advocacy Kathy Drea.
Some legislators voted against the casino exemption on the grounds that it didn’t go far enough.
Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, who voted “no”, said any exemptions from the ban should extend to Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion halls as well.
To that end, the House will soon examine House Bill 1310, which would give municipalities the power to issue smoking licenses to bars, private clubs, adult entertainment venues and casinos.
Restaurants could not apply for permits, because permit holders would have to derive 10 percent of less of their profits from food sales.
The bill also would require installation of ventilation systems to filter secondhand smoke from the air.
“It’s more about opportunity than revenue,” said sponsor Rep. Anthony DeLuca, D-Chicago Heights. “It’s more about giving the business owner the option to determine whether they want to target a market of nonsmoking or target a market of smokers.”
DeLuca said he plans to call the bill for a vote this week.
The American Lung Association in Illinois says the measure is just another attempt at eroding the smoking ban.
“We call these ‘licenses to kill,’” Drea said. “This is an outrageous idea - there is no city, no county, no state in the entire United States that sells smoking licenses.”
Smoking won’t be allowed in Illinois casinos unless House Bill 1965 goes on to pass the Senate and be signed by Gov. Pat Quinn.
Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, a noted foe of smoking, has said he would allow the proposal to go to committee.
A spokeswoman for Quinn said if the bill lands on his desk, he will consider it before making a decision.
However, Quinn himself said “I’m not for that,” when asked by a reporter if he supported rolling back the ban for casinos, according to Capitol Fax, a political newsletter.
Thirty-five states ban indoor smoking at the state level. More widely, 37 states and the District of Columbia provide for municipal anti-smoking ordinances.
Of those 38 jurisdictions, 22, including Illinois and Ohio, ban smoking at casinos.
However, casinos owned by Native Americans operate in many of those states, and states have no jurisdiction over those operations. Smoking in a tribal casino is at the discretion of the owning tribe.
By Andy Brownfield
The Carmi Times