By BOB ANEZ/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - The Montana House on Monday reiterated its desire to exempt casinos from any local smoking bans.
By the same 58-42 margin used to pass a similar measure two years ago, representatives endorsed a bill exempting any business with a gambling license from being subject to local ordinances more strict than the state laws governing indoor air.
The vote was a victory for the casino industry, which has pushed for the exclusion since Helena imposed a sweeping smoking ban on all public places in 2002. Various legal challenges have left that ban in limbo, but casino owners have contended that outlawing smokers would cripple their business.
The 2003 Legislature passed an exemption for casinos, but the Montana Supreme Court overturned it in December because it failed to specifically forbid such bans when it comes to casinos.
Familiar arguments over the bill Monday pitted private property rights against the dangers from secondhand smoke.
Those backing the exclusion said the state should not interfere with a private business owner's ability to decide whether to allow smoking in their operation.
Rep. Bob Bergren, D-Havre, said his bill does not pass judgment on the acknowledged dangers of smoking or secondhand smoke, but rather tries to ensure that all casinos across the state are subject to the same laws. It is appropriate for the state Indoor Clean Air Act to apply uniformly to casinos because the state also regulates their gambling, he said.
''I'm not going to say smoking is good; it's not,'' said Bergren, whose father and stepmother own a casino and restaurant in Havre. Bergren agreed that secondhand smoke kills people.
Rep. Dave McAlpin, a Missoula Democrat and leading advocate of anti-smoking efforts, said that preventing exposure to cigarette smoke for casino employees also should be the state's responsibility.
The Legislature long ago prohibited smoking in state office buildings to protect its workers and should not prevent similar safeguards for those employed in casinos, he said.
''This is about the right to breathe clean air,'' McAlpin said.
Not everyone was convinced.
Rep. Rick Maedje, R-Fortine, questioned whether fears of secondhand smoke are overblown and he rejected claims that dozens of Montanans die each year from exposure to such smoke. The number is closer to eight, he said.
''Secondhand smoke is less a deadly thing than driving on the highways,'' Meadje said. ''It is not a horrible, horrible thing that society has not been able to tolerate.''
But, Maedje said, even those concerned about the health effects from cigarette smoke should vote for the bill because it will allow parents to continue going to casinos to smoke, rather than go home and smoke in front of their young children.
Rep. John Ward, R-Helena, argued against the bill as one that puts the profits of casino owners before the health of their employees.
Before approving the bill, the House added a provision barring anyone under 18 from being in a business that offers gambling and allows smoking.
Forty-two Republicans and 16 Democrats supported the measure, and eight Republicans and 34 Democrats were opposed.
The bill is House Bill 661.