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Rolling back state smoking ban would be a first in U.S.

Publication Date: 2011-04-01

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.

Tax loss

However, Illlinois 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.