The push to ban smoking at Atlantic City casinos has gained quite a bit of support in recent days — including the endorsement of five more state senators to the tally.
But on Thursday, the casino industry’s opposition to the ban gained a century-old ally in the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce.
Chamber President Michael Chait said in a statement, “As we mark two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the greater Atlantic City region continues to feel the adverse economic impact from this unprecedented health crisis.
“As our community struggles to rebuild and recover, our priority must be to support and maintain a favorable economic environment for local businesses and employees. We must be focused on maintaining stability in the market, preserving and creating jobs, and supporting the local community during these uncertain times.
“To that end, recent efforts to impose a permanent smoking ban on Atlantic City casinos should be halted. A smoking ban would have a negative impact on the casino industry, resulting in significant job losses, decline in revenues, which in turn would hurt local businesses and vendors that rely on the industry for their economic livelihood.”
The challenge of health vs. economy
Chait continued: “We recognize the concerns of casino employees who support a smoking ban, but we also must keep in mind that thousands of employees and their families will be impacted by lost jobs if a ban is passed.
“A permanent smoking ban would put Atlantic City at a competitive disadvantage with casinos in Pennsylvania and Connecticut where smoking is permitted. As we continue to rebuild and recover from the pandemic, Atlantic City deserves a level playing field. By imposing a smoking ban, we are simply driving visitors, businesses, and jobs away from our region to neighboring states.
“In addition, the success of online gaming has created a misperception about the current state of the Atlantic City casino industry. The truth is employment and visitation are at a 20-year low. Land-based gaming revenues are down from 2019 and have not returned to pre-pandemic levels.
“As the numbers demonstrate, this is not the time to enact policy changes that could inflict yet another blow to an already struggling industry and the employees, families, and businesses that it supports.
“Despite these recent challenges, Atlantic City remains the economic engine of not only South Jersey, but the entire State of New Jersey, and we must do all that we can to help the industry recover from this once in a lifetime pandemic.
“The casino industry has produced more jobs, investment, and tax revenue than any other industry in Atlantic County over the past 40 years. I urge legislators to protect the jobs, tourism, and revenue that fuel our local and regional economy and oppose any efforts to enact a smoking ban at Atlantic City casinos. The growth and vitality of our community depend on it.”
The growing call for a ban
Not everyone feels the way the chamber of commerce does. Five new state senators joined the call this week in support of the smoking ban, which would end the casinos’ unique indoor puffing exemption in the state.
Senators Andrew Zwicker (D), Jon Bramnick (R), Joseph Cryan (D), Fred Madden (D), and Robert Singer (R) announced their support of the ban. That makes 13 of the 40 state senators on board with a proposal that Gov. Phil Murphy already has signaled he would sign into law as soon as it reaches his desk. Nine Democrats and four Republicans are on that list, making for an unusual bipartisan grouping in these partisan times.
“New Jersey should not allow any worker to be subjected to cancer-causing secondhand smoke while on the job,” Zwicker said in a statement. “I’m co-sponsoring S264 because it’s past time that we eliminate the casino smoking loophole and finally protect the health of casino workers.”
“Smoking inside should no longer be acceptable in casinos,” Bramnick said. “Employees have the right to breathe while working without the harmful effects of tobacco smoke.”
Senate Health Committee Chairman Joseph Vitale, Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz, and ex-Governor and current state Senator Richard Codey are among those seeking the ban.
Codey was governor in 2006 when he signed into law the ban on smoking indoors at all locations except the casinos, where a city ordinance limits smoking to 20% of the gaming floor.
“When I was governor, we passed smoke-free legislation that covered almost all of our state,” Codey said in a statement last month. “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.”
“We are grateful that these senators have heard our plea and are prioritizing our health,” said Pete Naccarelli, co-leader of Casino Employees Against Smoking’s Effects (CEASE), which has organized thousands of city casino workers since smoking returned in July 2021. “All we’re asking is to be treated like every other worker in the state of New Jersey. We refuse to continue choosing between our health and a paycheck.”