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Push grows to ban smoking indoors at Kansas casinos

Publication Date: 2012-02-02
  • Publication:The Wichita Eagle

Cigarettes and slot machines go hand in hand, some say.

But studies show secondhand smoke can be harmful to almost anyone in the same room.

Lawmakers gave state-owned casinos a pass on Kansas’ 2010 Clean Indoor Air Act, which bans smoking in indoor settings except private residences, adult care homes, up to 20 percent of the rooms in a hotel, some private clubs, tobacco shops and casino floors.

Now, some opponents of smoking want to ban it on casino floors as well. But casino managers say that could cost the casinos — and the state — millions of dollars. The debate played out Thursday before a legislative committee in Topeka.

Smokers will go to tribe-owned casinos and cross state lines if Kansas bans smoking while gambling, Richard Klemp, a lobbyist for the Kansas Star Casino in Mulvane, told the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee. And that could lead to a 20 to 33 percent decline in revenues, he said, because a large number of gamblers also smoke.

“It’s almost like popcorn at the movies,” he said. “It’s one of the things smokers like to do while they gamble.”

But tobacco smoke has dangerous chemicals that pollute the air in casinos, said John S. Neuberger, an environmental epidemiologist at the University of Kansas. Banning smoking would cut down on the health risks — including those that contribute to lung cancer, heart disease, bronchitis and asthma — for patrons and employees.

Neuberger advocated for lawmakers to remove most other exceptions to the smoking ban as well, although the bill — called the substitute for HB 2340 — doesn’t include other exemptions. He said he doesn’t object to smoking in tobacco shops, as long as they don’t share indoor air with any nonsmoking area.

The American Heart Association, American Cancer Society and several other groups support a ban on smoking in casinos.

“Given our state’s commitment to proving healthy, smoke-free work environments, we find it unacceptable that a line of compromise has been drawn which leaves Kansan casino employees overexposed and unprotected,” the American Lung Association argued. “Aren’t they worthy of the same protections afforded to other workers?”

The committee’s chairman, Sen. Pete Brungardt of Salina, said he’s not sure whether it will debate the bill again or vote to move it to the Senate floor.

State deal with casinos

Sen. Roger Reitz, R-Manhattan, said the state cut a deal with casino operators to exempt casinos from the smoking ban.

“I’ll cut you that much slack,” he said. “If we made a promise, I get very uneasy about the state making promises and then not keeping it.”

Reitz, a doctor, said he is concerned about casino workers’ health. He said many people are addicted to gambling and smoking, and he has questions about the treatment available to help them.

Reitz said many people exposed to secondhand smoke suffer devastating diseases and that it’s an expensive thing to treat. He also questioned whether casinos’ ventilation systems are sufficient to remove harmful fumes.

“The public health issue still is horrendous,” he said. “And it’s been denied for many, many, many years with regards to the tobacco industry. Only now do we have to fess up to it. Only now do we know what we’re dealing with. And you folks know that you’re dealing with it, too.”

“We care very much about our employees,” Klemp fired back.

Klemp said anyone who works there knows about the smoking situation.

"They choose to work there," he said. "Everybody that I know of is very pleased about their jobs. For many of them it’s the best job they’ve ever had and they really enjoy it."

The Kansas Star’s temporary casino area has an air system that provides a fresh air exchange up to eight times an hour, Klemp said. He added that air quality on the permanent casino floor will be even better.

Whitney Damron, a lobbyist for Kansas Entertainment LLC, which includes the International Speedway Corp. and Penn National Gaming, said a smoking ban would have a devastating effect on the Hollywood Casino, which is slated to open today at the Kansas Speedway in Wyandotte County.

He said a smoking ban would cut Hollywood Casino’s gaming revenue between 20 and 30 percent.

If that were to happen, it would also trim the state’s 22 percent share of money.

Sharon Stroburg, general manager of the 2-year-old Boot Hill Casino & Resort in Dodge City, projected that the state would lose more than $30 million over the remaining 13 years on that casino’s contract with the state.

She said the casino has a specialized air system that cost more than $1.8 million and that she hasn’t heard a complaint from a patron or employee.

“I don’t believe I would be stretching to say that our air handling system that we provide gives a fresher, higher quality air than you’re breathing when walking downtown in Dodge City, Kansas,” she said, drawing a roomful of laughter.

She said the casino draws hundreds of people from out of state.

“The number one phone call we get when they’re coming to see us: ‘Can I smoke when I get there?’ ” she said. “And we say yes. If the answer is no, they’re going to stop in Oklahoma or they’re going to stop elsewhere and they’re not coming to southwest Kansas.”

What patrons say

They probably wouldn’t come to the Kansas Star in south-central Kansas, either, said one gambler after a recent visit to the Mulvane casino. Ken Schilling, who moved to Wichita from Biloxi, Miss., two months ago, said he would gamble elsewhere if the state doesn’t allow smoking on the floor of the Kansas Star.

Kansas should look to Mississippi, he said, where casinos are sectioned off into smoking and nonsmoking areas.

“If there’s a discomfort to some, they have a place to play,” Schilling said.

The ability to smoke in a casino is important for the casino to succeed, he said.

“They recently opened one in Biloxi and it’s completely smoke-free now, and their business has declined tremendously,” Schilling said. “I definitely think they have to cater both ways.”

One nonsmoker at the Kansas Star, Scott Bishop of Wichita, said he wasn’t bothered by the smoke inside the casino, citing its air system. But he said the current law is unfair because it gives casinos a competitive advantage over bars and restaurants, which can’t allow smoking.

“I think if one place of business is smoking, they all should be,” Bishop said.

It’s all about money, he said.

“We’re losing Boeing and all the aircraft, and they want to give special privileges to money-making giants,” Bishop said. “I just don’t think it’s fair.”

Bishop’s father, Richard, a smoker, said he’d gamble elsewhere, probably at tribal casinos in Oklahoma, if he can’t smoke at the Kansas Star.

As for the health risks of smoking, Richard Bishop said, he is 72 years old and in perfect health, even though he has smoked for decades.

“The Lord, when he gets ready, he’ll call you no matter what you do,” he said.