Cape Girardeau City Council to discuss smoking ban’s casino effects

The new casino and the proposed smoking ban, two of Cape Girardeau’s biggest issues, are on a collision course, and the Cape Girardeau City Council plans to address them both.

However, there may not be much the council can do other than watch the whole thing play out.

On Nov. 2, the day Cape Girardeau voters were approving a proposal to allow Isle of Capri to build a $125 million casino, a group of residents were busy collecting enough signatures at polling places to put a measure on a citywide ballot that would ban smoking in all indoor public places, especially bars and restaurants.

The language also includes casinos.

“The simplest reason is it’s meant to be fair,” said Jeremy Barnes, a professor of health at Southeast Missouri State University and member of Breath Easy Cape Girardeau. “Why would you exempt a casino? It’s meant to be a level playing field. It’s our attempt to have an ordinance that protects everybody.”

Last week, the Missouri Gaming Commission selected Cape Girardeau as the site of the state’s 13th casino, meaning if the ballot issue that is likely to appear in April passes, the city will be home to the state’s only smoke-free gambling house.

Isle of Capri executives said last week that the smoking issue hasn’t even registered on its radar.

“We have not focused on this smoking ban,” Isle spokeswoman Jill Haynes said. “Our focus has truly been on the license.”

Isle operates casinos in Florida that are smoke-free and others that are not, Haynes said.

“We adhere to local law,” she said. “I don’t want to say it’s not important, because that’s not true. But it has not been our focus so far.”

The council plans to discuss the smoking ban at its study session, which begins at 5 p.m. Monday at city hall, 401 Independence St. But now that the petition has been certified, the only thing the council can do to keep it off the ballot is to adopt the exact language of the ban, which was drafted by Breathe Easy Cape Girardeau.

Several council members have said they don’t intend to adopt the ban as is and are content to let voters decide.

City attorney Eric Cunningham said that if the measure passes, it doesn’t seem that the council could legally exempt casinos or their gaming floors from the ban at a later date.

“I would be hard-pressed to tell them they could make a change to it after the fact,” Cunningham said. “Once it’s gone to voters and passed, it would be hard to change.”

The ban, which also bans smoking in bingo halls and private clubs, has been called strict by some. Cunningham wouldn’t agree to that term, though he did say, “it is fairly broad. It covers a lot.”

Illinois banned smoking in all public places, including casinos, in 2008. Lobbyists there argued that Illinois has lost some $500 million in two years to competition from neighboring states where smoking in the casinos is allowed. Illinois lawmakers are paying heed and are considering a measure to exempt the state’s casinos from the smoking ban there.

Still, Mayor Harry Rediger doesn’t see the situation as so dire here. He thinks that opening a smoke-free casino from the start, if voters approve the ban, would be much better than taking a smoking casino and changing it to smoke-free.

“I think it will be completely different,” Rediger said. “If we were up and running for three years at $100 million, I’d be concerned. And from visiting with Isle, they’re pretty nonchalant about it. They feel like it’s a coming thing, and they don’t seem overly concerned about it.”

There also isn’t as much concentrated competition here like there is in Illinois, where gamblers can cross the bridge into the St. Louis smoking-allowed casinos. He also isn’t convinced the Illinois lawmakers will grant the exemption.

“We’re still two years from opening ourselves, so who knows?” Rediger said.

source: Southeast Missourian

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