PORTLAND – If you want to gamble in Maine, leave your smokes at the door.

A new state law that goes into effect Jan. 1 will mandate that a proposed $650 million casino, like virtually all buildings open to the public, be smoke-free. It is thought there is now only one smoke-free casino in the country.

Some say a total smoking ban would hurt business and generate less revenue for the state. Others maintain that consumers are demanding more nonsmoking facilities and that smokers are conditioned to stepping outside to light up.

Erin Lehane, spokeswoman for Think About It, which is backing the ballot proposal to create the casino in Sanford, said many Maine restaurateurs predicted business would suffer when smoking was banned in restaurants in 1999.

“It hasn’t crushed the … restaurant industry in this state, regardless of what everyone said it would do,” she said. “It’s what’s happening nationwide.”

But John Michael of Auburn, a former state legislator who is leading a petition drive to overturn the state’s new smoking law, said a nonsmoking casino in Maine is destined to fail.

“If we pass this one, Massachusetts and New Hampshire will open smoking casinos and the only people in the Maine casino will be Maine people losing their paychecks,” he said.

Voters will decide Nov. 4 whether to allow the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy Indian tribes to build a $650 million casino and resort in southern Maine.

Michael said his campaign will be at the polls on Election Day collecting signatures to force a referendum to overturn the new smoking law. If his group, the Maine Freedom Coalition, collects at least 50,519 voter signatures by Feb. 2, the question will be on the November 2004 ballot.

As for a casino, some say that a gambling hall without smoking is like a movie theater without popcorn.

Surveys show 35 to 40 percent of casino customers smoke, compared to roughly 20 percent of the general population, according to Wayne Mehl, a consultant with the American Gaming Association.

At one time, a “nonsmoking” section at a casino consisted of single nonsmoking seat at a blackjack table where others could smoke, he noted.

Still, casinos in recent years have made strides to accommodate nonsmokers. In the early ’90s, two Nevada casinos – one in Las Vegas, one in Reno – went smoke-free, Mehl said. But when revenues fell by 25 percent or more, they quickly retreated from the policy and smoking resumed.

Virtually all large casinos nowadays have nonsmoking areas and elaborate ventilation systems, Mehl said. “In a new place like Bellagio (in Las Vegas), you can sit down in a main casino room and you would have to work hard to find a whiff of smoke,” he said.

The only nonsmoking U.S. casino is thought to be the Indian-owned Taos Mountain Casino in Taos, N.M., with 240 slot machines and four gaming tables. General manager Robert Pokorney said the casino has been smoke-free since it opened seven years ago and uses that fact as a marketing tool.

“We think that rather than hinder business, the smoking ban helps business,” Pokorney said.

In Delaware, though, a smoking ban that went into effect last November appears to be hurting the state’s three “racinos,” or horse tracks with slot machines. Delaware Lottery officials say proceeds from the machines through the first week of October this year are down 13 percent from a year earlier.

Delaware officials say the decline is due partly to the smoking ban, but they also blame poor economic conditions and poor weather last winter and again in late summer with hurricane-related rains.

Lehane said there are no plans to seek out an exemption to the state’s nonsmoking law if voters approve a casino. And if the smoking ban is lifted, the tribes will decide at that time whether to allow smoking at the resort, she said.

For now, at least, Lehane says she doesn’t think being smoke-free will hurt business at a casino.

But others say that’s a fallacy.

“I wouldn’t say they couldn’t succeed, but I think they’ll be at a disadvantage,” Mehl said. “If you make a total ban on smoking, there are no options and people will go someplace else. And that’s bad business.”

AP-ES-10-09-03 1513EDT

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