Our newest smoke-filled workplace: Sadly, it stinks

March 23, 2009
There's been much ballyhoo about a new casino here. Called Indiana Live, it sits off Interstate 74 southeast of Indianapolis in a former farm field. There's a gas station and a McDonald's across the street. There's little else.

The promoters of last week's grand opening proved masters of milk-a-controversy hype.

Ignoring even the pretense of respect for intellectual-property rights, the casino's ad makers knocked off Obama campaign colors, type fonts, slogans—even the president's likeness.

That earned them a wrist slapping from White House attorneys and a hollow pledge to pull the ads.

Then the promoters dangled an opening-night appearance by entertainer Justin Timberlake and his model-turned-actress girlfriend, Jessica Biel.

They never showed, but an estimated 8,000 people jammed I-74 and ill-equipped Shelbyville access roads hoping for a look-see.

That bait-without-a-switch led the casino's Indianapolis PR firm—which had fanned the faux flames—to resign the account.

It also led the casino's apparent new spokesman, Shelbyville Mayor Scott Furgeson, to tell Indianapolis Star readers, "I guarantee it was not a (hoax)." (Warning to Hizzoner from veteran media trainer: upon hearing such statements, the mind filters out the word "not.")

With these marketing mavens promising "Vegas Attitude. Indiana Address." and with our cash-starved Legislature dangling multimillion-dollar tax breaks for Indiana Live and its ilk, I decided to drive out on St. Paddy's Day to sniff around for myself.

(Confession: My timing was influenced by Indy.comblogger Neal Taflinger, who wrote, "The casino allows smoking anywhere food is not served, so non-smokers should visit soon before the place reeks like an ashtray." Well Neal, four days postopening wasn't soon enough, because the reek was already on.)

Tuesday night at 6:45, I opened a big door to Indiana Live. The fumes did the nasty in my olfactory.

I walked past the security guard and onto the casino floor. There was more than Vegas attitude going on. There was a full-force Vegas assault on my heart and lungs.

I strolled among the slots, into the poker room, past electronic roulette and blackjack tables.

There were ashtrays near every slot. Ash cans at the ends of aisles. Most patrons weren't smoking. But it didn't matter: those with cigarettes, pipes and cigars dangling from their lips and fingers controlled the air space.

I watched cocktail waitresses, a slot-machine repair guy, security guards, cashiers, hosts, hostesses and eagle-eyed managers. "I'm going to work this smelly assignment for half an hour," I thought. "These people have to work it every shift, every day, week after week. And in this economy, many of them have no choice."

As I passed the restaurants and the glamorized food court, I noted that there were no ash trays. I asked the host at the NASCAR Grille if his establishment—just off the casino floor and with massive open doors—billed itself as non-smoking.

"Non-smoking," he said, and then, as if to reassure me that the whole place was safe, he said, "I talked to one of the guys who worked on the air conditioning. He told me the air circulates six times an hour in there. Six times!

"I mean, look out there," he said, gesturing to the casino floor, "You can't see hardly any haze at all."

"Wow!" I said, feigning belief. "Do you smoke?"

"Cigar now and then," he replied.

If he only knew.

I left after 20 minutes. It took me half an hour to drive home. My wife Cheri welcomed me with a hug. She smelled my hair. She smelled my shirt.

"You stink," she said. "Take that off and go take a shower."

Twenty minutes on the job in an Indiana casino.

A 2006 report by the U.S. Surgeon General says, "Exposure of adults to secondhand smoke has immediate adverse effects on the cardiovascular system and causes coronary heart disease and lung cancer."

It continues: "The scientific evidence indicates that there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke."

The Indiana Live hype says you'll experience "aromas reminiscent of a Mediterranean marketplace."

No you won't.

An Indiana Live job description says hosts/hostesses must "comply with safe and hazard-free work environment practices" and ensure "that the work area is clean and hazard-free."

No they can't and no it isn't.

Sadly, a bill passed by the Indiana House of Representatives and assigned to a Senate committee says all this is acceptable—that the lives of these Hoosier citizens and casino employees, and the lives of others who must work there (even for 20 minutes)—are somehow expendable in our quest for commerce.

If that bill isn't amended to include all workers, then it needs to be killed altogether and the issue addressed another day. A legislative blessing for these dangerous workplaces would be a hoax far deadlier than any perpetrated by Indiana Live.


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.
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