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Tribes should let casino smoking bans stand

Much has changed in the social dynamics of smoking since Foxwoods Resort Casino opened in 1992, followed by Mohegan Sun in 1996. Original business plans allowed smoking tobacco throughout the facility, on the safe assumption that some casino patrons would want to smoke uninterrupted while they gambled. Imposing a lot of rules wasn't in the commercial interests of a facility that hoped to thrive on offering a less judgmental experience than everyday life.

If smoking tobacco was simply an indulgence, and not a practice that can slowly kill a person, allowing it would be one thing. Since Connecticut banned smoking in public places in 2003, however, the public distaste and discomfort with secondhand smoke has grown. As an unavoidable consequence of being physically present in gaming areas, exposure to smoke could be hurting business as much or more than it is helping.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and the Mohegan Tribe, respective owners of the two casinos, recognized the increased public health risks associated with viral infection combined with smoke. They closed during the worst of it, and when open they enacted bans on smoking that are still in effect.

The two sovereign nations took those actions voluntarily and in cooperation with the governor's request. On Monday, at an informational hearing of the legislature's Public Health Committee and Labor and Public Employees Committee, tribal representatives objected to a proposal that the state extend its 18-year-old public-smoking ban to the casinos. They told legislators that such an extension by the state would violate tribal sovereignty — much as if Connecticut tried to enact a law to govern Rhode Island or New York, suggested Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Chairman Rodney Butler.

Whether or not the state would prevail if it tried to extend the permanent ban to the casinos is a road best not traveled at this time. The compacts between the tribes and the state, stipulating that their health and safety standards be no less rigorous than those of Connecticut, suggest that the state might win in court. In 2008 the attorney general at the time, Richard Blumenthal, said requiring the ban would be lawful under the compacts.

It should not come to that. A ban on smoking is good public health policy and is the right course of action. Period. The tribes should act on their own to make the bans permanent and both sides should reserve the sovereignty discussion for defensible issues — not a proven danger like smoking.

The people affected by secondhand smoke are all the humans who come into contact with it, which on the casino floors fortunately excludes children but includes both patrons and employees. Involvement of the labor committee in the informational hearing highlighted the concerns of casino workers, particularly members of the UAW union at Foxwoods, which has a collective bargaining agreement with the tribe. Speakers said that their jobs place them in danger of ill health if they must work in a constant haze of smoke, even with ventilation.

Other factors make smoking on the casino floor a different matter than it once was, as both the state and the tribes know. Online gaming, which increasingly looks like part of the casinos' future, would make it feasible for people to cast bets online from their homes, smoke-filled or smoke-free as they choose. Without losing the business of smokers, the casinos could save others from having to be around them.

The labor and public health committees' interest in possibly requiring the casinos to enact permanent bans is in keeping with a crop of bills before the legislature that would regulate use of tobacco products and vaping. A ban at the casinos would be consistent with the state's overall policy of reducing public health risks from smoking. At the same time, however, the legislature is working its way toward legalization of marijuana, which would raise issues of its own for the casinos to manage, when and if that happens.

One substance issue at a time, however. The sovereign nations should acknowledge that a smoking ban is good for employees and patrons, and thus for business. They don't need the state to tell them what to do.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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