Smokers pollute casino air, study finds

Dana Heupel

A study commissioned by the American Lung Association of Illinois found unhealthy air levels in an East St. Louis casino, even though relatively few of the patrons were smoking, organization representatives said Friday.

The results indicate that casinos should not be exempted from a statewide smoking ban set to take effect Jan. 1, Kathy Drea, the Lung Association's director of public policy, said during a Statehouse news conference.

Lung Association volunteers, including Drea, assisted in the study, which was conducted by the Roswell Park Cancer Institute of Buffalo, N.Y. They and researchers secretly measured air quality during two three-hour visits to the Casino Queen in August, Drea said.

The study found that the average level of fine-particle indoor air pollution on the gaming floor was 16 times higher than outdoors, exposing employees and patrons to levels that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would define as "very unhealthy," Drea said.

Particles of that size are released in significant amounts from burning cigarettes, the Lung Association said in a news release.

About 6 1/2 percent of those in the casino were smoking, according to the study.

“There were very few smokers, but their smoking significantly impacted the air quality in the casino,” Drea said. She questioned industry reports that up to 70 percent of casino patrons are smokers.

The gaming industry and various lawmakers are trying to persuade the legislature to exempt casinos from the law that will ban smoking in all public places. They say the Illinois ban would give a competitive advantage to casinos in nearby states.

Drea said the Lung Association believes it has enough support in the Senate to defeat such an exemption.

“Our main concern is that they will roll the casino exemption into the capital bill,” Drea said. That would mean to vote against the smoking exemption, lawmakers also would have to vote against construction projects in their legislative districts.

Tom Swoik, executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, said he didn’t know enough about the study to question its findings. He suggested, however, that perhaps a new ventilation system in the newly reopened casino was not yet fully functioning or that some of the particulate matter might have been dust from recent construction in the area.

He said the Casino Queen and the Casino Rock Island both conducted surveys of patrons that showed from 60 to nearly 70 percent of them were smokers.

The gaming industry, Swoik said, is asking for a five-year exemption from the smoking ban, or until bordering states also prohibit smoking in public places.

Dana Heupel can be reached at (217) 788-1518 or dana.heupel@sj-r.com.