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Smoking debate rises from ashes

LANSING -- It could be light up or lights out for a statewide smoking ban this week in the Legislature.

Senate Republicans will take another stab at prohibiting smoking in all workplaces, including restaurants and bars. But whether to exempt Detroit's casinos remains a key question.

"It's time to get it moving," said Sen. Ron Jelinek, R-Three Oaks, who is prodding fellow Senate Republicans with a compromise.

That plan would ban smoking in all public places, but possibly allow it to some extent at the Detroit casino on gaming floors, as well as in cigar bars. Smoking would be banned at the Detroit casino restaurants and hotels, possibly answering concerns of bar owners about giving a competitive advantage to the casinos.

Jelinek and others said with only a couple of weeks before a long holiday break, the Legislature is under pressure to act on an issue that's been in stalemate for more than a decade.

"It's an emotional, important issue. They want it done," said Rep. Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park, who wants Detroit's casinos exempt from any smoking ban.

Casinos a wild card in smoking ban

Like Godzilla, the push to ban smoking in Michigan doesn't sleep forever.

The issue resurfaced last week, as Senate Republicans discussed cracking a long-standing impasse: whether to exempt Detroit's three casinos and cigar bars from a smoking ban that restaurant and bar owners generally oppose.

The revived effort brought Christopher Ilitch, president of Ilitch Holdings Inc., to the Capitol to personally lobby against a smoking ban for casinos. His mother, Marian Ilitch, owns the MotorCity Casino-Hotel.

"Some feel strongly there should be no exceptions, others say there need to be exceptions," said Sen. Ron Jelinek, R-Three Oaks, who is drafting a compromise bill. "Some say they don't care, let's get something done. I think that's where I am."

In May 2008, the GOP-led Senate approved a total smoking ban statewide. The Democratic-run House in turn passed a smoking ban that would exempt Detroit casinos, cigar bars, bingo halls and horserace tracks.

No compromise was reached and the issue died unresolved.

Michigan is one of 13 states with no general smoking ban, although the state forbids smoking in state workplaces.

Last month, anti-smoking advocates stepped up lobbying for a total ban. They say smoking is a health hazard to employees -- like waiters and waitresses -- in workplaces who are exposed to potentially deadly secondhand smoke.

Restaurant and bar owners say the state should not decide whether their customers can smoke in their establishments. They say more and more restaurants become smoke-free as customers demand it.

But Detroit's casinos remain the wild card.

They argue that a smoking ban would cost them tens of millions of dollars in lost business, as customers go where smoking is allowed, such as tribal casinos that are not subject to state smoking bans. Most of those casinos are in northern Michigan.

The likelihood of competition from new casinos in Ohio also threatens Detroit casinos.

Those cries of potential lost business and jobs in Detroit have been a powerful deterrent to a smoking ban, especially among Detroit-area House Democrats.

One is Rep. Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park, who said there's no need for a state ban that might harm casino profits.

"I'm an optimist," Johnson said. "There are cool heads at the table. The people on both sides respect the fact that what we sent over from the House is 98% of what strong advocates want."

Anti-smoking crusader Sen. Ray Basham, D-Taylor, disagrees. He said allowing smoking anywhere exposes those employees to secondhand smoke.

Basham said if the Legislature can't reach an agreement, he'll help lead a campaign for a ballot issue to ban smoking, adding, "I expect it would pass, and it won't have exemptions."

That would take money the anti-smoking coalition doesn't have, said Judy Stewart, spokesperson for the Campaign for Smokefree Air.

"We'd support it in any way," Stewart said. "It's just not financially possible."

Monday, December 07, 2009


Smoking debate rises from ashes