Thursday, May 03, 2007

Quick Thinking Illinois Legislature Passes Bill that Will Cost the State Hundreds of Millions

Casinos fear losses; others study options

Metro-east casino, bar and restaurant operators say they expect a 20 percent loss in business if Gov. Rod Blagojevich signs a smoking ban passed Tuesday by the General Assembly.

Representatives of the Casino Queen in East St. Louis and the Argosy Alton Casino referred calls to Tom Swoik, executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, which represents eight of nine state gambling establishments.

Swoik painted a bleak picture of smokeless Illinois casinos.

"It could be as much as $166 million lost," Swoik said, based on the 20 percent figure. "The Casino Queen and Casino Rock Island estimate that 60 to 70 percent of their patrons are smokers. And while there is a lot of loyalty amongst casino patrons, people who live near the border will be awfully tempted to make the short drive to a place where they can smoke."

The House on Tuesday approved the smoking ban, which will take effect in January if Blagojevich signs off on it as he is expected to do.

Backers said the law was needed because 2,900 Illinoisans die each year from secondhand smoke, and it's unfair that not only customers but also people who work in the service industry, including waiters and bartenders, have no choice now but to be exposed to the smoke. Blagojevich has indicated that he plans to sign the bill into law.

Scott Schmelzel, co-owner of Big Daddy's 618 in Belleville isn't a smoker. But he said he is disappointed about the ban because he thinks it will hurt his business.

"I know it's going to slow things down, at least initially," Schmelzel said. "Smoking is part of the bar atmosphere. That's part of the reason they come here, and I don't want my customers to be unhappy."

Schmelzel said he thinks he has an advantage over most bars in the metro-east, however. He has an outdoor patio where people can still hang out while puffing away.

Jessie Zirkelback, manager of Randy's 6-4-3 restaurant and bar in Troy, said she is planning to have a patio built to appease smokers.

"We were waiting to see if this passed," said Zirkelback, who estimated that 40 percent of her customers smoke. "Now that it has, we're definitely going to put a patio on."

Bob Graham, commander of American Legion Post 365 in Collinsville, said he plans to talk with the organization's board of directors about turning the establishment into a private club to get around the new law.

"We're definitely going to discuss that at our next meeting," Graham said. "We need to talk to legal counsel to see what we can do."

When asked how the smoking ban would affect the American Legion's business renting out its hall for wedding receptions, parties and other events, Graham was more optimistic.

"People are going to still need a place to hold those big events," Graham said. "The only difference I suspect you will see is a lot more cigarette butts on the parking lot."

Larreen Presson, a smoker from Collinsville, said she goes out to eat about once a week.

"I guess I'm going to go over to St. Louis more often," Presson said. "This is definitely going to affect where I go out for dinner."

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at or 239-2626.