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State's duty to remedy casino exemption

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By Alta Cook

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“I will sign it!” — Gov. Terry Branstad’s assurance at a town meeting if the Legislature brings the directive, “No smoking in our state-regulated casinos,” to his desk.

On Aug. 21, I attended a town meeting in Tipton at The Family Restaurant. Gov. Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds (recently making a list of the “Top Ten Rising Stars” according to the Washington Post) presided over the enthusiastic gathering as part of the governor’s commendable undertaking to eventually visit all 99 countries to hear grass-roots feedback and concerns.

After mentioning a litany of positive accomplishments during his present administration, the governor also spoke of his desire to have Iowa become “the healthiest state” in the country. At that point, with my encouragement, the audience responded with a heartfelt applause for his zealous work and efforts.

However, it was then I interjected my major concerns with the health issue. I told the governor if Iowa is to receive accolades for being the healthiest state, we cannot be hypocritical and still allow smoking to exist in our casinos. According to the Des Moines Register, there are approximately 9,331 employees working in our state-regulated 18 casinos. If the Racing and Gaming Commission grants a license for the proposed Cedar Rapids casino, it is estimated this will employ an additional 350 full-time workers.

An Iowa law has already prohibited smoking in smaller bars and restaurants. From what I have surmised, the law has not caused major closure for the affected owners. But the word “fairness” comes into play. Why force the smaller places to abide by strict no smoking rules and permit the larger casinos to proceed without the same directives?

The CEOs of casinos are probably afraid a no-smoking requirement would cause the smokers to leave their establishments and head out for the nonstate regulated ones, (e.g., Meskwaki at Tama); revenues would decline, and the state would lose money. Actually, it is possible a reversal could occur and the attendance increase if people see this as a “positive” and smoking was no longer acceptable.

The CEOs preach that the managers have dissected areas in the casinos for smokers and non-smokers. Employees, however, just don’t remain in one area. They often circumvent the entire playing field. This is not a healthy situation as several studies have proved secondhand smoke is a health hazard.

Iowa should recognize that money and greed should never replace a healthy, safe environment for its constituency.

According to the Register, for a 12-month period ending in June of 2012, the gross revenues for Iowa’s 18 casinos was a whopping $1.45 billion! Why not have the state show some appreciation for this windfall and reciprocate with the reward of a healthy smoke-free situation for attendees? If your individual desire is not to step inside any casino, that is your choice.

But can you still show some concern and compassion for the young adults and seniors who do need the work and earnings; for those who enjoy a place for social gatherings with others, perhaps avoiding some loneliness; for those who like listening to free singers and performers on stage; and obviously for those who do desire to take a chance with the possibility of a lucky win.

But all of these attendees need the guarantee of a smoke-free environment.

As I was leaving the Tipton town hall meeting, a young mother with two small children asked me, “Do you think we can get this done? ... My mother worked at a casino for eight years and then had to quit because she just did not feel good” (insinuating the smoky environment was not good for her mother’s overall health).

There’s a lesson for the legislators to learn here. When research and studies show emphatically that a detrimental situation exists that is harmful to Iowans and can be remedied, it is their duty, as elected officials, to act accordingly.

Alta Cook of Iowa City is a retired language arts teacher and an inductee into Iowa City High’s Hall of Fame. Comments: chamfam@mchsi.com

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