SPRINGFIELD — A survey of Illinois casino users says more are staying away because of high fuel costs than the state’s smoking ban.

By Andrew Thomason

The study by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Policy Analysis says 24 percent of Illinois gamblers are avoiding casinos because of the state’s smoking ban, compared to 40 percent who said they’ve skipped a visit to the casino because of the cost of gasoline.

The survey was released today, just an hour before a measure was to be voted on in the state Senate Executive Committee that would exempt casinos from the state’s smoking ban.

State Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Cicero, who is behind the push to allow smoking in casinos, he said he disagrees with the survey.

“There has been a negative revenue impact as a result of the impact of the smoking ban at the casinos,” Sandoval insisted.

Adjusted gross receipts for casinos in Illinois dropped by 30 percent, from $1.9 billion to $1.3 billion since the smoking ban took effect on Jan. 1, 2008, according the Illinois Gaming Board’s 2010 Annual Report.

Tom Swoik, executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, predicted Sandoval would eventually call the measure for a vote given that casino revenue continues to slide.

Sandoval said he is working to find more support for his proposal to allow smokers to light up in the state’s casinos. The measure already has been approved by the state House of Representatives.

The survey about gamblers’ attitudes toward smoking was commissioned by the American Lung Association in Illinois, an organization that was instrumental in getting the state’s smoking ban put into place. It has been a defender of the smoking ban ever since.

The survey questioned 401 people who had visited a casino in the past 12 months. Of those surveyed, 24 percent said a smoke-free environment would make them less likely to go to a casino, while 45 percent, said they were more likely to go a casino that does not allow smoking.

“Smokers did not constitute a disproportionate percentage of casino gamblers in Illinois. In fact, what we found was that about 20 percent of the casino gamblers report that they are still currently smokers, whereas the prevalence rate in Illinois is about 21 percent. So it simply isn’t true that smokers are more likely to gamble at casinos than non-smokers, as often as asserted,” said Clyde Barrow, the professor who conducted the study.

The prevalence rate is how many Illinois residents on the whole smoke.

State Sen. Terry Link, D-Waukegan, chairman of the Senate Gaming Committee, said he’s come out against an exemption for casinos to allow smoking. He said he blames the most recent recession for declining gaming revenue.

Casinos in surrounding states that offer hotels, restaurants and other amenities are another reason Illinois casinos are losing business, Link said.

“I think that the casino industry would probably be better off if they started putting signs out saying that they were smoke-free,” Link said. “And I think once the recession goes away … you are going to see a lot more people coming into these types of smoke-free atmosphere.”

Sandoval has until May 31 to get his measure, House Bill 1965, passed.

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