The New Jersey legislative calendar is virtually dormant until after Labor Day, but backers of a ban on smoking at Atlantic City’s nine casinos aren’t waiting around until then.
On Wednesday, a group of supporters of the ban gathered at the headquarters of the United Auto Workers office in Linwood, about 10 miles west of Atlantic City.
With a majority of Trenton lawmakers already in support of the ban, and with Gov. Phil Murphy already having said he would sign such a bill, smoking ban backers focused during the 40-minute roundtable discussion on offering what they said were practical solutions. That could ensure that leaders in the state Senate and Assembly allow a smoking ban bill to come to a vote.
“The solution is an outdoor smoking area,” said Pete Naccarelli, a casino table game dealer and a leader of the Casino Employees Against Smoking’s Effects group. “It’s not acceptable to me to blow smoke in my face. Whether it’s indoors or outdoors, that’s unhealthy.
“And what about dealers who are pregnant, or people who got over cancer, or have lung issues or asthma?” Naccarelli added. “I don’t have those problems yet, but I probably will from secondhand smoke.”
Chris Moyer, speaking for Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, and Corrine Orlando of the American Heart Association each warned against following Maryland’s lead in permitting smoking at so-called “outdoor areas” that wind up with walls and roofs around and over the areas.
“The way the bill was written it allowed them to create outdoor areas that are not truly outdoors,” Moyer said of the Maryland law. “That would not be an acceptable situation here.”
Said Orlando: “The doors would open and close, and workers would have to work in rooms. That’s not something we think is a solution.”
‘This isn’t 1985 anymore’
Patrick Ashton, a representative for the United Auto Workers, which represents table game dealers at several casinos in Atlantic City, said that many concerns about the ban are out of date.
“Casinos always mention it’s bad for business and jobs,” Ashton said of the proposed ban. “But when online gaming came in [launching across the state in 2013], they never said it’s going to affect business and jobs. Not one bill was introduced over concerns that it would affect jobs.”
“The labor shortage is severe,” Ashton added of claims of likely layoffs resulting from a ban. “To say [that eliminating smoking] will affect employment in casinos — that is factually not true.”
Naccarelli struck a similar theme regarding the industry’s resistance on the issue.
“They have been in the business 40 years,” Naccarelli said. “This isn’t 1985 anymore. We are seeing reports now that casinos that have gone nonsmoking have done better.”
The idea that forcing smokers outside would be bad for business was challenged on more than one front. Moyer pointed to a potential boon for those prone to compulsive gambling.
“One of the core tenants of responsible gaming is taking breaks,” Moyer said. “If you are not forced to step outside to smoke, you are not forced to take a break. That means casinos are getting more money. The big question we should be asking is, ‘Why is that okay?’”
General indoor ban passed in NJ 16 years ago
A state law passed in 2006 banned smoking in indoor areas with few exceptions — casinos being among them.
“When I was governor, we passed smoke-free legislation that covered almost all of our state,” state Sen. Richard Codey said in a statement earlier this year. “Restaurants complained their businesses would suffer, but, in fact, the opposite happened: Customers loved the smoke-free environment. The same will happen with the casinos. It’s past time that casino workers have the same protections as every other worker in New Jersey. We need to get this done.”
Current law allows casinos to allow smoking in 25% of their slots and table gaming space.
The casinos all were closed from mid-March 2020 until the July 4 weekend that year, and indoor smoking initially was banned due to pandemic concerns. But the ban was lifted last summer.