Clearing the air on casino smoking

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Some inquiring readers wonder whether a potential Cedar Rapids casino will or won’t allow smoking while gambling.

“If Linn County gets a casino, it won’t be for everyone; really it will only be for the smokers, if my past experiences with the current Iowa casinos is still true,” a reader wrote to me recently. “We have not been to a casino in several years. Just don’t want to face the smoke.”

Others said smoking would affect their vote in the March 5 casino referendum.

So I asked lead casino investor Steve Gray to clear the air.

“The headline answer to this is it’s yet to be determined,” Gray said.

“We have some pretty strong feelings from the public and our investor group that it should either be non-smoking or substantially non-smoking. But we don’t quite understand the physical or economic implications of either of those, so we’ve got some more work to do on that,” Gray said.

Iowa still allows smoking on casino gaming floors, amid the slots and blackjack. That’s because, a few years back, when the Legislature was banning smoking in nearly all public places, bravely crusading to save us from the scourge of secondhand smoke, lawmakers voted to exempt casinos. If you want to understand the clout casinos have at the Statehouse, look no further.

There’s a new bill aimed at repealing that exemption, Senate Study Bill 1107. If you want to know what it would do, read the bill. If you want to know whether it has any chance of passage, read the lobbyist declaration list. The Iowa Gaming Association and several casino companies are lined up against it, and they rarely lose.

I’m no anti-tobacco crusader. I thought all business owners should have been allowed to set the rules for their own joints, with customers allowed to vote with their dollars.

But if we’re going to have a smoking ban, and it is the law of the land, it should at least be fair. Why should casinos get a break that the corner tavern doesn’t get?

Well, the corner tavern’s lobbying budget is likely modest, for one thing. And second, the corner tavern doesn’t pour nearly as much revenue into state government. The gaming association claims that banning smoking in casinos would result in the loss of as much as $80 million in state tax revenues and 1,500 jobs. Those are the kind of numbers that get lawmakers’ attention, even if they’re overinflated.

We heard lots of very dire predictions before the smoking ban passed. I repeated some of them when I opposed it. But, from my personal perch, it doesn’t seem like they came true. Regardless, people and businesses have adapted. Despite my misgivings about governmental nanny-ism, I have to admit that smoke-free is better.

There are three casinos in the Quad Cities, including the newest, Jumer’s Casino and Hotel, on the Illinois side in Rock Island. Illinois banned casino smoking, so Jumer’s is non-smoking. It makes more money than either of the two Iowa casinos that allow smoking, at $87.8 million last year, a 2.3 percent increase over 2011. How smoking plays into the that equation, I don’t know, but it’s interesting.

Gray says if his group picks the “substantially non-smoking” option, he envisions allowing smoking in an extension of the gaming floor with its own entrance, connected, but also separated, from the rest of the facility, which would be non-smoking.

“One of the biggest turnoffs is when you walk in the door and one of the first things you see is people smoking or smell the smoke. That’s just a turnoff for a lot of people,” said Gray, who is a non-smoker.

I can’t blame Gray and his backers for adapting to the gambling landscape as it stands.

But I do have a problem with the unfairness to small businesses. Will local bars lose customers who can go to the casino, gamble, drink and puff inside? I’m not certain, but the Legislature should grow a backbone and correct its mistake. Don’t hold your breath, however.

But what if Gray’s group did decide to make a Cedar Rapids casino fully smoke free? Maybe they'd lose referendum votes, but maybe they'd gain some. It might also help them make a case to the Racing and Gaming Commission that this project is different from nearby casinos. We're not cannibals. We're Blue Zone gamblers. Do they make treadmill slot machines?

It’s something to chew on. Like nicotine gum.


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