Editorial: Casinos should have to abide by smoking ban, too

Editorial

It's probably a good thing - if you like clean indoor air - that the Senate delayed last week's session and instead will meet this week to possibly consider a large-scale capital program.

The delay will allow legislators to have more evidence at their fingertips to deny another attempt to water down Illinois' statewide smoking ban that will take effect next year.

But what do clean air and funding for schools, roads and sewer projects have to do with each other? It appears any large scale capital program - some are suggesting bonding as much as $10 billion - will rely on the expansion of gambling for its funding source.

A plan has been floated to add an additional three casinos, which would provide a revenue stream of about $1.5 billion to float the capital bonds.

Illinois badly needs a capital program. Some school districts, such as Rochester, were promised state funding long ago for school construction contingent upon their own citizens putting up their share of the money. Well, the locals kept their end of the bargain, but year after year the state has failed to hold up its end of the bargain.

Likewise, Illinois' Congressional delegation has negotiated $6 billion in federal highway funding that is sorely needed to begin fixing our state's roads and bridges. But that money is contingent upon the state coming up with its own $1.2 billion funding match.

There is much need for a capital program and thus much pressure on state officials to finally figure out how to fund it. Gambling expansion looks like the odds-on favorite.

The casino owners know that.

They also know this might be their trump card to get their businesses exempted from that statewide smoking ban that will go into effect on Jan. 1. It is expected that any gambling expansion bill also will include a smoking ban exemption for the state's casinos.

It is past time for the General Assembly to get its act together and approve a capital bill - no matter how many memorandums of understanding that might require Gov. Rod Blagojevich to sign.

However, the capital bill should not include a concession to allow casinos to continue poisoning their patrons and employees with secondhand smoke. The General Assembly now has more than enough evidence to refute the casinos' argument that they need an exemption from the smoking ban.

Some of that evidence was provided by a recent State Journal-Register analysis of Springfield sales tax figures, which showed that the economic disaster predicted following the institution of the capital city's smoking ban last September simply did not occur.  In fact, sales tax receipts for bars and restaurants are higher now than before the smoking ban took effect.

Additional evidence arrived on Friday from the American Lung Association of Illinois, which released a study showing patrons and employees at the Casino Queen in East St. Louis are being subjected to "very unhealthy" levels of secondhand smoke.

The study, provided through the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, showed the fine particle indoor air pollution on the Casino Queen gaming floor was 16 times higher than the outdoor air. The study found that, despite a new state-of-the-art ventilation system, the air quality from secondhand smoke was bad enough that patrons and workers would exceed the EPA 24-hour standards for exposure after just 3 hours and 28 minutes on the gaming floor. And most amazing of all, this smoke was coming from a small number of people - fewer than 7 percent of the patrons were smoking.

The state need not pass an exemption to its lifesaving, smoking ban law. A far better solution is for smoking gamblers to step outside to engage in their addiction. It might even change their luck.