Keep Illinois casinos smoke free

When Illinois enacted its statewide smoking ban nearly three years ago, we were a staunch backer of the law. It was evident that health concerns of secondhand smoke outweighed any economic concerns raised by those businesses affected by the ban.

We still hold that opinion.

Therefore, efforts by the Illinois gaming industry to now exempt casinos should be defeated if called for a vote in the legislature.

To be sure, studies do show that some gamblers will avoid nonsmoking casinos in favor of ones that allow smoking. So it stands to reason that those gamblers may bypass Illinois casinos for those in Indiana, Iowa or Missouri where they can puff away while pulling the slots or trying their hand at blackjack. And those in favor of smoking in casinos can point to economic studies that show Illinois gambling revenue is down since the ban went into effect.

“I have no doubt it would help,” said Elgin Mayor Ed Schock, who favors lifting the ban at casinos like the Grand Victoria in Elgin. That casino saw a drop in revenue of more than 22 percent in the first year of the smoking ban.

But the impact of the economic downturn must figure into the declines, too, and, even more important, we are not convinced that gambling revenue despite Illinois' need for more money is the answer to the state's problems. That's why we've been reluctant to embrace a plan in the legislature now that would significantly expand gambling in Illinois.

Likewise, we agree with the American Lung Association that casino workers in Illinois should not have to suffer the effects of secondhand smoke in order for the gaming industry to make more money. According to the association's website, secondhand smoke causes approximately 3,400 deaths from lung cancer and 22,700 to 69,600 deaths from heart disease each year.

Furthermore, easing the smoking ban at casinos could lead other businesses to claim the same hardships. What about the bars and restaurants on Illinois' borders? They were among the strongest opponents of the law when it first was proposed and enacted. It stands to reason that they would see an opening for their own hardship claims.

Indeed, many of those bars will have their own version of gambling when video poker, already approved, gets under way. Arlington Park, which would get slot machines under the gambling expansion bill now being considered, would be exempt from the smoking ban if it was approved.

None of those scenarios are palatable. Nonsmoking patrons of casinos, bars, racetracks and any other establishment deserve to be free from secondhand smoke. Rather than change Illinois' forward-thinking law, efforts should be made to convince surrounding states that nonsmoking casinos are the right thing.

Exempt casinos from smoking ban?