BOSTON - The Massachusetts Senate voted Thursday to ban smoking in casinos as part their push to license three of the resort-style gambling venues.
The 24-15 vote removes a portion of the bill that would have allowed casinos to set aside up to a quarter of their gambling floor as a smoking section, provided they install "appropriate ventilation so as to minimize the effect of the smoke on the nondesignated areas."
Critics said granting casinos an exemption from the state's six-year-old workplace smoking ban would jeopardize the health of casino employees. Under the 2004 law, smoking is barred in restaurants, bars and other workplaces. There are exceptions for private clubs and cigar bars.
Sen. Susan Fargo quoted from engineering studies that she said showed smoke can't be prevented from escaping into nonsmoking areas. Fargo also said that allowing smoking in casinos would drive up health care costs even as the state is trying to contain spending.
"Secondhand smoke gets out," said Fargo, D-Lincoln. "This is the most hypocritical thing that I have experienced in nearly 14 years in the Senate."
Casinos have other motivations to allow smoking, according to Sen. Patricia D. Jehlen, including persuading gambling to stay in their seats and keep betting rather than stepping outside for a cigarette.
"If you go outside from a casino, maybe you get out of the zone, maybe you can think about what you've already lost," said Jehlen, D-Somerville. "Maybe you won't go back in."
But casino supporters said it's disingenuous for the state to pick and choose between vices. They said if the state is going to allow expanded gambling, than they have to give casino operators the freedom to run the venues as they choose.
Senate Ways and Means Chairman Steven Panagiotakos said there are real costs to the state if it fails to give casinos an exemption to the smoking ban.
"If you don't have a smoking area we could lose between $65 and $94 million dollars in what we are estimating in revenues," said Panagiotakos, D-Lowell. "It also puts us at a competitive disadvantage."
Sen. Richard Tisei said banning smoking in casinos is an extension of Massachusetts' "nanny state" mentality. He said smoking and drinking is part of the casino experience, whether or not lawmakers like it.
"Have any of you people ever been to a casino?" Tisei, R-Wakefield, said during the debate. "Only in Massachusetts would we have a casino bill and try to build a politically correct casino."
A study commissioned by the Senate to look at the potential revenues from casinos in Massachusetts said three slot machine parlors in Delaware lost more than 11 percent in revenue in 2003 after the state banned smoking. The report also noted that in the years following the ban, revenues rebounded to pre-ban levels.
Atlantic City banned smoking in the city's 11 casinos in 2008, but repealed the ban a month after it went into effect because of complaints by casinos.
During the debate, senators also voted 13-26 against a proposal to require a cost-benefit analysis of the potential harmful effects of casinos, from compulsive gambling and increased crime to added pressure on local businesses.
Casino critics have long argued that expanding gambling will end up costing the state more in social services and crime prevention than it will bring into the state in added revenue.
"It's going to end up costing your taxpayers more money," said Sen. Susan Tucker, D-Andover. "They are going to pay even if they don't play."
The Massachusetts House has already approved a bill to license two casinos and allow 750 slot machines at each of the state's four racetracks.
Gov. Deval Patrick has said he supports resort-style casinos, but is opposed to racetrack slots, although he has stopped short of issuing a veto threat.
Friday, June 25, 2010