PINE BLUFF — The Pine Bluff City Council next week will consider whether to include Saracen Casino Resort in a city ordinance that mandates smoke-free workplaces.
In the 2019 legislative session, the General Assembly passed Act 947, which exempts casino floors from the Arkansas Clean Indoor Air Act of 2006, the state’s law to protect workers from secondhand smoke and to protect Arkansans from secondhand smoke in public places.
On Tuesday, the Public Health and Welfare Committee of the City Council — consisting of council members Donald Hatchett, Ivan Whitfield and Bruce Lockett — debated an ordinance that would add the casino, a $350 million gambling and resort facility currently under construction in Pine Bluff, to the city’s smoke-free workplace law.
Lockett sponsored the proposed amended ordinance.
The committee was divided on banning smoking inside the casino, but the members voted to send the ordinance to the full City Council for debate, stopping short of endorsing it for passage.
The issue received support from Katherine Donald, executive director of the Little Rock nonprofit Coalition for a Smoke Free Arkansas, but was opposed by Saracen Casino Resort, which was represented by Carlton Saffa, a member of the project management team.
“Our mission is very simple,” Donald said of the nonprofit. “We work throughout the state of Arkansas helping to inform policy, information, and other efforts that will protect the health of Arkansans.”
Donald told the committee that smoking-related health problems cost private insurance providers in Arkansas $542 million annually, and that smoke-free workplaces could substantially lower that amount by ensuring that workers are not subjected to secondhand smoke.
“We don’t believe in the state of Arkansas that a worker should have to jeopardize their health to earn a living,” Donald said.
Saffa countered by telling the committee that banning smoking in the casino could lead to a sharp reduction in the casino’s projected income, leading to a drop in the tax revenue that both the city and Jefferson County are anticipating as a way out of their current economic woes.
Saffa handed out a study conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis in 2008 that showed a 20% drop in casino revenue in Illinois in the year after the state instituted a smoking ban in all of the casinos in the state.
“Immediately after the ban was announced, you can see that the bottom fell out in terms of casino receipts,” he said. “That’s obviously not good for my employer, it’s not good for the state of Arkansas, which is depending on that revenue to build roads and bridges — but all politics is local, and it’s not good for the city of Pine Bluff.”
But, Saffa said, the health of workers is important to Downstream Development Authority, the Quapaw Nation-owned entity that is developing the casino. Saffa said the health care benefits the casino offers are self-insured, which he said makes keeping costs under control of paramount importance.
“It’s in our interest for people to be healthy too,” Saffa said. “The costs of smoking, or the lack thereof, is something we are familiar with.”
Saffa told the committee that part of the construction of the new casino includes a $2 million to $3 million state-of-the-art air filtration system that will maintain air quality inside the casino by recirculating the air every 10 minutes, filtering smoke through vents in the ceiling and pumping fresh air in through floor panels throughout the building.
He said a similar, but older, system is in place at Downstream Casino in Quapaw, Okla.
“If you walk into Downstream Casino,” Saffa said, “the lobby is a little bit smoky, and yes, you notice it, but then you walk into the casino and suddenly it’s not smoky anymore.”
Lockett said he sponsored the ordinance because he has long been an advocate for limiting smoking in public.
“I’m an advocate for smoke-free environments as much as possible,” Lockett said. “I don’t believe your ability to smoke should impact my health.”
Whitfield opposed the measure, saying he believed, had the measure been in place before the city signed a deal with Downstream Development, that agreement might never have been reached.
“If this had been in place before they turned dirt out there, I don’t believe they would have ever turned dirt,” Whitfield said.
“Gambling, drinking, and smoking goes together. It’s just that way.”
Lockett disagreed, saying that some 800 casinos around the country are nonsmoking.
“We’ll just have to see where this goes,” he said. “I’ll go by whatever the council decides, but I want us to take a hard look at this.”