If tribal and privately owned casinos around the country insist on allowing smoking, that’s their business – though behind the times and bad for the health of their employees and customers. But it is Kansans’ business that state-owned casinos continue to allow smoking, and disappointing that state lawmakers show dwindling interest in righting that wrong.
Bowing to gaming industry pressure, the 2010 Legislature made the terrible decision to exempt the state-owned casinos in Sumner County, Dodge City and Kansas City, Kan., from the Kansas Indoor Clean Air Act.
So the state hypocritically told private restaurant and bar owners to prohibit smoking, dismissing those private entities’ concerns about potential loss of business, while making an exception for itself based on the casino operators’ concerns about potential loss of gambling revenue.
Attempts to address the hypocrisy since have risked compounding the offense, including proposals to bring back smoking in bars statewide. Now, legislative leaders explain the inaction by citing the risk that a debate on casino smoking would invite legislative attempts to expand gambling.
Perhaps just as likely is the risk that such a debate would spark an effort to curtail or repeal the 2007 law allowing destination casinos – at a time when the state needs all the gambling revenue it can get to help the state budget cope with last year’s income-tax cuts.
But the state has a huge fiscal interest in prohibiting such smoking, too, because its Medicaid program, now privatized as KanCare, pays $200 million a year to cover the costs of tobacco-related illnesses.
Casinos point to their efforts to mitigate secondhand smoke via air-filtration systems, including the $7 million system at Kansas Star Casino’s permanent facility in Mulvane.
But researchers at Stanford and Tufts universities who sampled and tested air in casinos a few years ago found that 9 of 10 smoking casinos exceeded the World Health Organization standard for fine particular matter.
Meanwhile, 19 other states including Colorado ban smoking in casinos, and there are 500 smoke-free casinos nationally. And though Illinois’ experience with a casino smoking ban supports the industry’s contention that bans hurt revenues, Colorado-based Smoke-Free Gaming bluntly counters that smokers die 14 years sooner than nonsmokers and “that’s 14 years of lost gaming/tax revenue per smoker.”
The Eagle’s Fred Mann reported Monday that the new Kaw National SouthWind Casino in Kaw City, Okla., about 90 miles southeast of Wichita, has become the first nonsmoking casino in the region. That small slots-only casino will be a good test of the gambling market in the area, and a blessing for employees like the man who found that working at the Kaw’s casino in Newkirk, Okla., “was just like smoking myself.”
Meanwhile, Gov. Sam Brownback, a cancer survivor himself, should lead the way on closing the casino loophole in Kansas. The longer the wait, the greater the health risk to the employees and patrons of the state-owned casinos – and the greater the state’s hypocrisy.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman