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Wednesday, March 28,2012

Ifs, ands and butts

If a casino comes to Lansing and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians owns it, smoking will be permitted inside the facility

by Andy Balaskovitz

Expect smoking at the proposed Kewadin Lansing casino. Banning it would have been a deal killer.

The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians would have felt singled out and at a disadvantage with the only smoke-free casino in Michigan, those close to the negotiations said.

“If they did not allow smoking, they wouldn’t be doing any of the business they’re doing now,” said Bill Cross, a partner in the development group, Lansing Future LLC. “If you take that away, it would probably take out 30 percent of the revenue, maybe even higher. That means it would have been a deal-breaker for the city, too.

“Let’s say we’re the only Native American casino in the entire state that doesn’t have smoking: It just makes it an unfair playing field,” he said.

Speaking on the new television show “City Pulse Newsmakers” on Sunday, Mayor Virg Bernero said, “Don’t let perfect become the enemy of good,” acknowledging that while he would have liked to see a smoke-free casino, it was the tribe’s decision.

“In truth, I don’t think this is a perfect proposal. I think if we wait for perfect, we’ll wait for something that may never be,” he said. “There’s lots of things to like about this proposal.”

Bernero said he “didn’t notice a heavy smell” when visiting other casinos where smoking is permitted. “Would I prefer that there was no smoking anywhere indoors? Yeah, I would. But that’s not law in Michigan. To single out Lansing would have put us at a disadvantage.” Bernero added “that’s our view” when asked if requiring the casino to be entirely smoke-free would have been a “deal-killer.”

“I know they weren’t much interested in being singled out and doing something different than what other casinos are doing,” Bernero said.

Multiple attempts to reach Sault Tribe Chairman Joe Eitrem were unsuccessful. 

Michigan’s smoke-free law, which took effect May 1, 2010, exempts casinos from complying with the law. That includes the three commercially run casinos in Detroit. And state law does not govern Native American land, which the proposed casino would fall under if approved by the federal government.

Cross, of Lansing Future, said plans call for “small bars here or there” within the casino where smoking would be allowed. He added that he believes alcohol will be priced in the $3 to $4 range for drinks, thus deterring people from hanging out  drinking and smoking in the casino for extended periods.

John Lufkins, executive director of the Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan, said tribes have not made a coordinated effort to change casino smoking policies, though smoking is recognized as a health issue. He said in some cases, public buildings on reservations must be smoke-free in order to receive federal funding.

“Tribes realize that smoking is a health issue across the country,” Lufkins said. The Inter-Tribal Council represents all federally recognized tribes in the state. “The option to allow people and patrons to smoke in a casino is a tribal choice. … I’m sure it would cause a little influx in the casino business.

“It’s always discussed but one of those issues that just doesn’t go anywhere,” Lufkins added.

But at least one nationwide group has launched an effort to get all casinos — tribal and commercial — to go smoke-free. Cynthia Hallett, executive director of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, said that the “general common sense argument is: All workers deserve a smoke-free place.”

The Bernero administration projects 1,500 permanent jobs will stem from the casino, if it happens. Hallett disputes claims that being smoke-free would deter potential visitors. “Weather and the price of gas is what is deterring them from going to the casino,” she said, adding a bad economy to the list.

Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights formed in 1976 “at a time when very little” was happening in terms of smoke-free areas. Hallett said 19 states have smoke-free laws that apply to casinos. While no Native American tribes in the U.S. have uniform smoke-free policies for all their casinos, “There are a number of tribal casinos that have gone voluntarily smoke-free.”

Others also claim that it’s the “employee’s choice” to work at a place that’s not smoke-free. Hallett hears the argument all the time. “People don’t really have a choice, nor should they have to make that decision. Highly specialized, highly skilled workers shouldn’t have to make a choice of where to do a job and do it well based on the smoke. … People shouldn’t have to make a choice between their health and a paycheck.”

Hallett also said it’s important to recognize the distinction between using tobacco for sacred use, which is common among Native American tribes, versus smoking commercial tobacco products.

And then there’s downtown bar owners and managers, who have mixed feelings about the whole idea.

“I don’t know if it will hurt us as far as food goes,” said Mike Rourke, kitchen manager at Edmund’s Pastime. “It’s just more people downtown, in my opinion, and also might bring a later-night crowd.”

But Michael Moriarty, owner of Moriarty’s and Stobers on Michigan Avenue, is less optimistic.

“They make profit on gambling. It’s a totally unfair playing field. With all the employment the casinos make, you’re gonna lose it in the other bars. Half the bars can’t survive. I bet you over half won’t survive,” Moriarty explained. “People are gonna go where they can smoke. That’s a big issue. It will kill the day shift. Why would you come to a bar you can’t smoke at when there’s one where you can?”


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