The Illinois House decided Tuesday to bet big on the idea that riverboat casinos could rake in more money if gamblers were allowed to smoke.
The House approved legislation that would exempt casinos from the statewide smoking ban if they operate near a neighboring state that permits smoking in casinos.
Supporters of the bill, which was sent to the Senate 62-52, said Illinois casinos are losing business to competitors in Indiana, Iowa and Missouri.
Opponents, however, said Illinois barred workplace smoking to protect employees. They say casino workers should not be forced to choose between their jobs and their health.
Indiana lawmakers are considering a public smoking ban of their own, but casinos were exempted from the bill due to concerns about a decrease in gambling revenue.
It is still uncertain whether the bill will be voted on this year. Indiana Senate Public Policy Committee chairman Sen. Ron Alting on Tuesday told one newspaper he wouldn't hold a needed vote on the bill, but later told another newspaper that he changed his mind.
In Illinois, Rep. Daniel Burke backed the smoking ban in 2008 but is now sponsoring the casino exemption, which would expire if neighboring states banned smoking.
"Let's be real — this is not about the smoking issue. This is about the money," the Chicago Democrat said during floor debate. "How dare you put (casinos) at a competitive disadvantage during this unfortunate economic time?"
Similar legislation passed the House last year but stalled in the Senate, which Burke blamed on an opponent signing on as sponsor and then sidelining the bill. He said that won't happen again.
Tom Swoik, executive director of Illinois Casino Gaming Association, said gambling revenue has dropped 32 percent since the smoking ban was approved. He said the ban probably accounts for one-third to one-half of that and has cost state government about $800 million in taxes.
Swoik said Illinois casinos saw a 21-percent revenue drop the first year of the smoking ban. At the same time Indiana casino revenues dropped 6 percent and Missouri 4 percent, while Iowa increased by a fraction of a percent.
However, Kathy Drea, lobbyist for the American Lung Association in Illinois, said the state has saved $1.18 billion in heart-related health care costs since the smoking ban went into effect.
Several other studies have concluded that smoking bans will save lives, but won't save money in long-term health care costs.
Drea and others argued that customers may be able to decide whether they want to gamble at a casino that allows smoking, but employees generally can't.
"When representatives talk about choice here, we're talking about workers who don't have a lot of choice," said Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago.
Swoik said many casinos have taken steps to reduce the health dangers by installing modern ventilation systems. But Swoik acknowledged he didn't know whether those systems remove cancer-causing material from the air.
Drea said the ventilation systems only produce a cosmetic improvement. She said air quality levels at the Casino Queen in East St. Louis were still "unhealthy" or "very unhealthy" according to the Environmental Protection Agency even after the ventilation system was in place.
Drea also repeatedly called Burke a liar for saying in debate that Indiana has given its casinos an exemption from that state's smoking ban. Actually, Indiana does not ban smoking in the workplace.