DES MOINES | Iowa casino operators rallied Tuesday to snuff out the latest effort to prohibit smoking on gambling floors.

"When you look at our floor, our smoking side is busier than our non-smoking side," said Sharon Hasselhoff, general manager for Grand Falls Casino Resort in rural Lyon County. "It would have a huge affect on revenue and employment here. I'm sure that's the case across the state for all of the casinos."

State-regulated casinos were exempted from Iowa's Clean Indoor Air Act when it passed in 2008. After hearing testimony Tuesday from groups in favor of and opposed to lifting the exemption, a Senate subcommittee postponed action to gather more information.

A smoking ban would put the Argosy Sioux City at an unfair disadvantage with two nearby Native American casinos, Argosy general manager Lance George said. That's because the WinnaVegas Casino near Sloan and the Blackbird Bend casino near Onawa are not subject to the state's indoor clean air law.

"This in turn would siphon our smoking customers to those facilities, causing significant revenue loss for the state, Woodbury County and Sioux City," George said in an email.

The general manager added it also would be "detrimental" to a new land-based casino in Woodbury County. Argosy owner Penn National Gaming and two other developers are competing for a state license to open an onshore casino.

Lifting the exemption on gaming floors would cause a 20 percent drop in revenues for the state's 18 regulated casinos, which would have a $60 million to $80 million decline in the $330 million in state taxes the facilities pay annually, Wes Ehrecke, president of the Iowa Gaming Association, said. He also projected a smoking ban would cause up to 1,500 casino employees to lose their jobs.

Dr. Richard Deming, a radiation oncologist who is medical director of the Mercy Cancer Center in Des Moines, told the Senate subcommittee that "Iowa was on the forefront of foreward-thinking" when the Legislature and former Gov. Chet Culver agreed to ban smoking in public areas and workplaces, with the exception of gaming floors and the Iowa Veterans Home.

"Iowans who have to work should not have to choose between their health and a paycheck," he said.

Ehrecke pointed out that casino operators have been proactive in installing air filtration systems for the benefit of their non-smoking customers.

Grand Falls Casino Resort's state-of-the-art system features vents under every slot machine and table game that push smoke toward the ceiling and out of the building, Hasselhoff.

"Our air turns over every three minutes on that casino floor," she said.

During Tuesday's Senate subcommittee meeting, Sen. Bill Anderson, R-Pierson, declined to support Senate Study Bill 1107, which would lift the exemption, and Sen. Steve Sodders, D-State Center, said he needed more time to gather additional information.

Subcommittee chair Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, who backs the bill lifting the exemption, said she planned to schedule a follow-up meeting. Peterson noted that a similar bill has been introduced in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and she might try to move that version forward if the prospects for passage were better in that panel. -- Journal Des Moines Bureau reporter Rod Boshart Journal contributed to this story.

 

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