Smoking controversy swirls around Eurovegas project in Madrid

Madrid, May 30 (EFE).- The possibility that smoking will be allowed at the Eurovegas complex that American magnate Sheldon Adelson intends to build outside Madrid has sparked controversy and prompted accusations of misplaced priorities.

Plans for the complex of convention centers, casinos and hotels in a 750-hectare (1,850-acre) area of the Madrid suburb of Alcorcon have generated heated discussion in recession-hit Spain for some time.

The latest fight surrounding Eurovegas pits Madrid officials against health advocates who fear that smoking will be allowed at the complex despite a federal anti-tobacco law that took effect on Jan. 2, 2011, and prohibits smoking in enclosed public spaces.

On Thursday, the spokesman for Madrid's regional government, Salvador Victoria, said that Spain cannot afford to lose a project like Eurovegas because of the smoking debate and that rules on where smoking is allowed must be made compatible with the plans for the complex.

In justifying their support for smoking at Eurovegas, local officials note that the complex could involve investment of as much as 16 billion euros ($20.9 billion) and lead to the creation of up to 250,000 jobs, a figure that opponents of the project deride as unrealistic.

The Spanish economy remains hampered by the fallout from the collapse of a long-building housing bubble, which left many of its banks saddled with toxic assets.

The Iberian nation's unemployment rate currently stands at roughly 27 percent overall and more than 50 percent among young people.

Victoria's remarks echoed statements in previous days by the Madrid autonomous community's top health official, Javier Fernandez-Lasquetty, who said the federal anti-tobacco law needed to be adjusted to allow smoking at Eurovegas and ensure "an investment that will create thousands of jobs."

Lasquetty's comments especially angered medical associations, who say it is unbecoming of a health official to advocate lifting a smoking ban on economic grounds.

"Smoking seriously jeopardizes one's health and causes pathologies that significantly raise health costs. What's the deal?" the secretary-general of the AMYTS medical association, Julian Ezquerra, said.

On Tuesday, Adelson, chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, said Eurovegas was "moving forward" but would take "a while" to become a reality due to the sheer size of the project.

His remarks came a day after he spoke in Madrid with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who confirmed the meeting and said Eurovegas was a "good project" that would create jobs.