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Casinos are among the last places Kansans can smoke indoors. Workers are asking for a ban.

The Kansas Legislature is again considering whether to ban smoking in casinos.
Stephen Koranda
/
Kansas News Service
The Kansas Legislature is again considering whether to ban smoking in casinos.

Gambling industry lobbyists say a bipartisan bill that would prohibit smoking in Kansas casinos would drive customers away.

Pneumonia, bronchitis, strep throat — Joe Hafley says he’s had it all in the six years he’s worked security at Hollywood Casino at Kansas Speedway. Recently, he was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The culprit, he believes, is the cigarette and cigar smoke he’s exposed to at work.

“I love my job,” Hafley said, “other than dealing with the secondhand smoke every day.”

Casinos are one of the only indoor public places where Kansas still allows smoking. The state’s indoor clean air act prohibited smoking in restaurants, bars and most workplaces over a decade ago. Proposals to remove the exemption for casinos have been met with fierce opposition from gambling industry groups, which say it would cripple business.

Hafley is part of a new movement of casino employees in Kansas and a handful of other states who are urging state lawmakers to make casinos smoke-free through the advocacy group Casino Employees Against Smoking Effects. They’re joined by health advocates who say smoky casino air disproportionately harms low-income workers.

At a Wednesday hearing at the Kansas Statehouse, Hafley spoke in support of HB 2622, which would ban smoking on casino gaming floors.

“I’m doing this,” Hafley said, “because I have a wife and a son who I want to be there for for a very long time.”

The bill embroils Kansas in a contentious debate over casino smoking playing out in several states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Kansas lawmakers considered a similar proposal last year but did not pass it into law.

Secondhand smoke dangers

Supporters told lawmakers the ban would give casino employees the same protections from smoke exposure that nearly all other workers enjoy.

They pointed to evidence that even brief exposure to secondhand smoke is harmful. It can cause heart disease and lung cancer in adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with asthma in children, pregnancy complications in women and a host of other health problems.

“There is no safe level of secondhand smoke,” said Kari Rinker, Kansas government relations director for the American Heart Association.

“We do consider this a health equity issue because these are largely low-wage workers that are exposed to (casino smoke),” she added.

Sara Prem, director of advocacy in Kansas for the American Lung Association, said the group supports the bill in its current form, though it would have also liked to see the clean air act updated to include e-cigarette vaping in the definition of smoking.

Ventilation systems that casino operators say mitigate the impact of secondhand smoke can make casino air smell better, said Traci Kennedy, the Midwest state strategist for the advocacy group Americans for Nonsmoker Rights, but they don’t eliminate the hazards of smoke-filled air.

“Before that secondhand smoke ever has a chance to get to a ventilation system,” she said, “it’s going through the lungs of a worker.”

Casino revenue concerns

Gambling industry lobbyists told lawmakers the bill would put Kansas casinos at a competitive disadvantage to those in Oklahoma and Missouri, which permit smoking, and tribal casinos in Kansas, which would not be impacted by a ban.

Kevin Fowler, a Topeka attorney representing Kansas Crossing Casino in Pittsburg, also pointed to the bill’s fiscal note that estimated it would cost Kansas $9.6 million and Kansas cities and counties $1.2 million in tax revenue in its first year.

“Our clients are interested in generating revenue — not only for their shareholders, but also for the state of Kansas,” he said. “That is why we are in business.”

Some lawmakers appeared skeptical of the lobbyists’ discussion of revenue losses.

“I have zero sympathy for your testimony that you provided today,” said Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican and chair of the House health committee. “You talk about the revenue to the state, but we don’t take into account what (the casino industry) has done to some families, how it’s destroyed some families.”

Rep. Susan Ruiz, a Shawnee Democrat and the committee’s ranking minority member, said workers pay a human price for secondhand smoke exposure.

“I think about what it is costing them as far as health issues,” she said, “and what that costs the state in the long run.”

Data on purported revenue losses of casino smoking bans is mixed. Economists concluded that Illinois lost more than $200 million in tax revenue after implementing a casino smoking ban in 2008. A 2021 analysis, commissioned by Atlantic City casino operators, warned of significant revenue declines and job losses if New Jersey banned the practice.

But a 2022 report by a Las Vegas industry group concluded that casinos that banned smoking after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic tended to fare better than those that did not. And one 2017 poll found that around 75% of regular casino-goers in the U.S. favored smoke-free policies.

Avoiding smoky air

Opponents of the proposed Kansas ban told lawmakers that people who don’t want to be exposed to secondhand smoke can choose not to go to casinos.

When asked whether employees have a similar ability to avoid exposure, Whitney Damron, a lobbyist for Kansas Entertainment LLC, which manages the Hollywood Casino, said he did not know but assumed casino managers would try to respond to employee concerns.

“I think any employer would make accommodations as best they can,” he said. “I’ll inquire.”

But Hafley told the Kansas News Service that he spoke with Hollywood Casino management in October about his concerns with smoke exposure and has not heard anything since.

A spokesperson for PENN Entertainment, the casino’s parent company, declined to publicly respond to Hafley’s concerns.

“The health and wellbeing of our team members has and continues to be one of our top priorities. In accordance with our internal policies and respect for the privacy of all our team members, we cannot comment,” the spokesperson said in an email.

Rep. Emil Bergquist, a Park City Republican, expressed concern that it might be difficult for people in areas with a high concentration of casinos, like Southeast Kansas, to find a job that doesn’t expose them to harmful smoke.

Rinker, with the American Heart Association, said that could leave some Kansans between a rock and a hard place: forced to choose between staying healthy and putting food on the table.

“We say it’s freedom of choice, but sometimes choices are few and far between,” she said, “for some of the low-wage workers in those areas.”

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is sponsoring the bill: Republican Reps. Owen Donohoe and David Buehler and Democratic Reps. Sydney Carlin, Ford Carr and Dennis Highberger.

Rose Conlon reports on health for KMUW and the Kansas News Service.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Rose Conlon is a reporter based at KMUW in Wichita, but serves as part of the Kansas News Service, a partnership of public radio stations across Kansas. She covers health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.