A proposal in Springfield to let towns issue indoor smoking permits isn’t likely to light up economic growth in the Tri-Cities, area officials agree.
“I don’t think this is going to have any real effect on our downtown,” said Batavia MainStreet Executive Director Joi Cuartero.
House Bill 1310 would give municipal liquor commissions the power to issue indoor smoking permits to adult-oriented businesses, such as bars, that make less than 10 percent of their revenue from food sales. Business owners seeking the permit would have to prove that they have told all their employees that smoking might be allowed on the premises. If they receive the permit, they also must prominently post a public notice that smoking is allowed inside, according to the bill, which is co-sponsored by state Rep. Randy Ramey Jr. (R-55th) of nearby West Chicago.
According to a press release from the International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association, allowing indoor smoking would encourage cigar bars to open in Illinois communities, generating tax revenue and creating jobs.
Local officials, though, don’t see that happening.
“The majority of people I talk to are much more family oriented,” Cuartero commented. “A lot of people are nonsmokers who enjoy the fact that they can go out to the bowling alley, a restaurant, even O’Brien’s Pub and enjoy themselves without having to put up with tobacco smoke.”
“We’re not jumping forward to support this bill,” said Ellen Divita, Geneva’s economic development director. “I don’t think cigar bars would flock to open in Geneva, because they didn’t pick Geneva to locate in before the smoking ban (imposed by the state in 2008.) This community is very concerned about health and public safety. If someone petitioned to get an indoor smoking permit, the City Council would consider it because it’s required to, but I doubt it would ever go through.”
St. Charles Economic Development Director Chris Aiston said his department is not tracking the bill’s progress.
“I have not seen indoor smoking as a major factor in our economic development,” he said. Aiston did note that allowing municipalities to grant indoor smoking permits would unbalance the “level playing field” state lawmakers established by banning indoor smoking statewide.
Even if smoking-permitted businesses were to pull customers away from St. Charles attractions, the city almost certainly would not allow indoor smoking, asserted Mayor Don DeWitte.
"This City Council made its position clear when it passed a local smoking ban before the state passed its ban," DeWitte said. "We have taken a firm stance on public health. I cannot see a situation in which I, as liquor commissioner, would issue a permit to allow indoor smoking."
House Bill 1310 was introduced Feb. 9 and is now being debated in the Executive Committee.
Other local legislators are split on the issue.
“I’m opposed to any change in the smoking legislation,” said Rep. Patti Bellock, R-Hinsdale. “I think it was hard enough to pass through the state … and a lot of people have made the major social changes with that, and I think that changing it would be very difficult at this time.”
"I don’t support the legislation,” said Rep. Sandy Pihos, R-Glen Ellyn. “I just feel like we have already taken the hard road. We have seen the Surgeon General’s report on secondhand smoking. We have come a long way.”
Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, supported the 2008 ban, but has changed his stance. Now, he says, consideration comes down to economics.
“The fact of the matter is we are losing revenue,” he said. “People like to smoke when they’re gambling, that is an attraction for individuals. I think we need to be careful when applying things so broadly. We have to consider what kind of impact it is going to have on the industry.”
Rep. Dennis Reboletti, R-Elmhurst, supported the 2008 ban, but now he says a future decision comes down to economics.
“I am leaning in support of the casinos because of some of the projections I am seeing,” said Reboletti. “I have talked to residents in my district and they are going out of state to gamble and taking their tax revenue with them.”
Thapedi and others point to a study commissioned by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis that investigated the effect of the Illinois smoking ban on Illinois casinos. According to the report, their estimates suggest that revenue and admission declined by more than 20 and 12 percent, respectively. In real dollars, that translates into a $400 million loss to casinos and a $200 million loss to state and local governments. You can read the report here.
Kathy Drea, vice president of advocacy of public policy for the American Lung Association of Greater Chicago, says making a one-to-one revenue comparison between casinos that allow smoking and those that don’t doesn’t work.
“There is a feeling that this is really going to bring in some revenue. We just don’t think it’s a guarantee” Drea said. “Vegas casinos allow smoking, and they have experienced the same downturn as everyone else."
Drea said a revenue chart with data collected by Smoke Free Illinois indicates Rock Island’s former casino lagged behind in revenue to its Iowa counterpart before and after the smoking ban was implemented. According to the chart, it wasn’t until a new facility was constructed in January 2009 that the Rock Island facility began to bet its closest out-of-state competitor.
While both bills are yet to be voted on by the Executive Committee, which controls the bills' future, and there is no clear timeline for when a vote would be called.
This is not the first time lawmakers have attempted to pass exemptions to the 2008 ban. Two years ago, a similar bill exempting casinos was proposed but lost by two votes in committee before coming to the floor. Rep. Randy Ramey, R-Carol Stream, a sponsor of the bill, said those "no" votes have indicated they would be willing to vote yes this time.
“I think we have a real good opportunity,” Ramey said. “I’ve been a part of this for three years, trying to come to some kind of accommodation to some businesses that would allow them to at least have a choice. Businesses deserve the choice.”
Under new House rules, bills that garner 71 or more co-sponsors, with at least 20 signatures from the opposing party, would have to be moved from the Executive Committee and called for a vote on the House floor. Ramey said supporters of his bill may consider using this tactic.
“We don’t have a next step just yet, but we are looking at all our options to move the bill.” he said.
Gov. Pat Quinn's press secretary, Annie Thompson, was noncommittal.
“We haven’t had an adequate amount of time to consider the specifics of the bill, but if it is passed and comes to the governor’s office, we will give it a full consideration as is our standard procedure for all pending legislation,” she said.