A statewide ban on smoking in public places has been in effect since 2008, with one exception: smoking is still allowed on the gaming floors of Iowa casinos. Republican Governor Terry Branstad says if legislators pass a bill to ban smoking at the casinos, he “would sign it tomorrow.”
The statewide smoking ban was signed into law by Democratic Governor Chet Culver, but Branstad has been an anti-smoking crusader during his political career. One of his first acts as governor in 1983 was to remove all the ashtrays and forbid smoking in the governor’s office and the official residence. Branstad says ending smoking on the casino floor is a public health issue.
“I just think in terms of fairness, we have a law that’s designed to protect people’s health having clean indoor air,” Branstad says. “They have an exception.”
The governor isn’t making the issue a priority, however.
“I intend to propose things that have a realistic chance of passing,” Branstad says. “So there’s some things that I support and think would be good public policy that aren’t necessarily going to be in my program because I learned a long time ago that if you want to be effective, focus on things you think can get accomplished.”
The Iowa Senate has endorsed a ban on smoking at the casinos before, but it stalled in the House. Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs says it’s hard to predict how the 37 new members of the legislature may vote on this issue.
“They haven’t had discussions with other folks,” Gronstal says, “so we’ll see when they get here, when they move towards consensus on this.”
House Democratic Leader Kevin McCarthy says the casino exemption was necessary at the time.
“I was part of the small group of legislators that helped cut that deal, however ugly it was a few years ago, because that helped us get to 51 votes and we knew that over time the culture would get there to get to 100 percent,” McCarthy says. “I don’t know whether we’ll get an opportunity to vote on it. If we did, I suspect it would pass pretty overwhelmingly.”
State Representative Janet Petersen of Des Moines was a key sponsor of the smoking ban back in 2008 when it cleared the Iowa House. She’s now a senator-elect.
“We have a whole new crop of legislators coming in both the House and the Senate,” Petersen says. “I think it’s going to take some time to get people up to speed on The Smoke-free Air Act and to gauge their level of interest in getting rid of the casino exemption.”
Petersen isn’t sure whether she will introduce legislation in January that would ban smoking on the casinos’ gaming floors.
“I have done it on my own in the past and so I’m not scared to do that, although it would be nice to have enough votes to send it down to the governor,” she says, “so I’m probably going to just spent a little bit of time and see if we can pull the votes together or if it’s going to take a while.”
Back in 2008, many Republican legislators objected to the idea of telling business owners they couldn’t allow smoking in their establishment. Senate Republican Leader Bill Dix of Shell Rock says that’s still a concern.
“Businesses, frankly, should be in a position to make those determination on their own,” Dix says. “The public, then, can make a decision whether they choose to patronize that. In the case of the casinos, people can make that choice not to go.”
The casino industry argued their exemption from the smoking ban was a competitiveness issue back in 2008, as casinos across the river in Illinois allowed smoking. However, Illinois now has a statewide smoking ban in place that covers the casinos as well.