By Benjamin Yount Illinois Statehouse News
SPRINGFIELD – If Illinois lawmakers don't roll-back the state's smoking ban for casinos, they may just allow the riverboats to build special smoking sections.
A second proposal to scale back Illinois' statewide smoking ban cleared its first statehouse hurdle on Monday. The legislation from State Rep. Andre Thapdei, D-Chicago, would allow Illinois' nine casinos to build designated smoking rooms, complete with ventilation systems, for gamblers who want to light-up while they play.
Thapedi said after two years it is clear that gamblers who used to lay-down bets in Illinois are crossing the border to gamble and smoke.
"The Federal Reserve bank's researchers [have] opined that Illinois loses approximately $200 million in revenue by barring smokers from smoking in Illinois casinos."
Other studies put the dollar loss closer to $500 million since the smoking ban took effect two years ago.
State Rep. Dan Beiser, D-Alton, said the Argosy riverboat in Alton has lost a good deal of money to casinos just across the river in Missouri since Illinois went smoke free.
"The Alton facility has lost 30 percent to 40 percent of its revenue in the past couple years," he said. "How much of that is from the smoking ban? I'd say the vast majority."
Beiser said Illinois' casinos are at a clear competitive disadvantage because of the smoking ban.
State Rep. Pat Verschoore, D-Milan, said casinos across the state have lost about 10 percent of their revenue to the smoking ban. Though he said that might not be the case for all riverboats.
"I've been by the new Casino Rock Island and the parking lot is full on the weekend. And I've spoken with people who are gambling and they say they love it because [the casino] is non-smoking. But maybe I was just talking with non-smokers."
Verschoore had his own legislation to carve-out an exemption for all casinos when the smoking ban passed back in 2008. He said he'll likely vote for this latest smoking exemption.
But other lawmakers say if casinos get special treatment, then bars, restaurants, and social clubs will be next.
State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, was the only lawmaker to vote against the smoking zone legislation.
"The [people in my district] who own a restaurant, a bar, or the VFW, or whatever are going to be treated differently and asked to abide by a law whereas we're going to create and carve-out another exemption for the gaming industry," said Brady.
But the state's fiscal woes may be too great, and the promise of easy money may be too tempting for lawmakers to pass-up.
Anti-smoking forces, however, say it's a poor argument that Illinois' needs outweigh the health and safety of thousands of casino workers and other gamblers.
Kathy Drea with the American Lung Association of Illinois said the state is essentially banking on death.
"There are so many other things that we can do. We can raise the cigarette tax … that would bring in at least $300 million and another $300 million in a federal match. So there's $600 million right there. There are so many things we can do to find revenue rather than be a proponent of something that makes people sick and kills them."
But State Rep. Thapedi said if lawmakers approve the smoking zone exemption for casinos, all workers would have to volunteer to work there. He said no one would be forced to go anywhere they do not know is risky.
"It's no different than a coal miner going into a coal [mine] or an asbestos remover removing asbestos."