Missouri Gaming Commission gambles against public health

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

When the COVID-19 pandemic quickly spread last year, a number of businesses, including casinos, temporarily shut down.

Consistent with developing health protocols for re-opening, such as frequent disinfection of surfaces, requiring face masks and providing hand sanitizer stations, over 140 casinos in 23 states also prohibited smoking. Managers recognized face masks were of little value if smokers pull them down while smoking. Several managers also recognized the public health risk of exposing people to secondhand smoke.

So, what about Missouri?

Sadly, not one Missouri casino adopted this health measure. Even so, Section 313.812.14 of the state gaming law requires the Missouri Gaming Commission to take punitive action against a casino licensee that acts or fails to act in a manner that is “injurious to the public health.”

In May of 2020, the gaming commission was asked to give attention to this clause. This request was accompanied with information about long established medical science that exposure to secondhand smoke is a causal factor for heart attack, lung cancer, emphysema and stroke.

Also provided was a report that found air quality in Missouri casinos rated as “unhealthy” and a study that found a nearly 20 percent reduction in medical emergencies when smoke-free policies were implemented across the 26 casinos in Gilpin County, Colorado.

That secondhand smoke is dangerous to employees and patrons should not be news to the commission. In 2009, the National Council of Legislators from Gambling States, of which Missouri is a member, adopted a resolution in support of smoke-free gaming venues. This resolution encouraged state gaming commissions to adopt smoke-free policies as a prerequisite for issuing or renewing licenses.

The commission chose not to discuss the matter. Instead, their general counsel said a different state law allowed local governments to enact ordinances to prohibit smoking in public places and workplaces, and thus preempted the commission’s authority. The attorney would not provide the citation for this law.

Section 191.777 of the “Clean Indoor Air Act” does, in fact, allow local governments to adopt smoke-free ordinances. However, it does not preempt other governmental bodies from enacting smoke-free ordinances or regulations themselves.

When presented with the text of this law and asked to clarify how the commission’s authority is preempted, the attorney said case law supported his opinion. But, he refused to provide citations for even two court cases to support his claim.  Instead, he said the commission decided not to discuss the matter and thus, the issue is closed.

An open records request revealed an e-mail from the attorney stating the commission chair’s position was that their primary mission is to regulate gambling activity facilities in the state and therefore is not interested in pursuing a smoking policy for casinos.

Whether a primary mission or not, the law is clear in stating a casino licensee “shall be”, not “may be” subject to punitive measures for “any act or failure to act … that is injurious to the public health.” The law stipulation of “shall be” means this is not a discretionary option for the commission, but a mandated requirement to act in the interest of public health.

Commission data indicates over 7,700 employees in Missouri casinos. These employees deserve a safe workplace environment free of air pollutants known to cause heart disease and cancer. Especially when this exposure is so easily prevented!  Sadly, these employees would likely be subjected to retaliation if they spoke up (e.g. have hours cut, be re-assigned to less desirable work shifts, be passed over for raises or promotions, be laid off, etc.).

Thus, they have no voice regarding a totally preventable risk to their health, leaving them the hard choice between a paycheck or their health.

The commission not only has the statutory authority, but also the statutory mandate to protect the public health. Their dereliction of duty endangers the health of employees and patrons by needlessly exposing them to secondhand smoke, a known cause for heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases and strokes.

It’s time for them to grow a conscience and require casinos to be smoke-free. Do it just for the health of it.