Atlantic City Casino Smoking Ban Bill Revived

Senate leadership change could give proposal a better chance in new session
new jersey senate
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Six state senators reintroduced a bill on the first day of the new legislative session Wednesday that would ban smoking at the nine Atlantic City casinos.

Despite extensive backing for the proposal among lawmakers and several statements by Gov. Phil Murphy that he would sign such a bill, it was not among 100 that received a vote on Monday’s final day of the “lame duck” post-election session.

The new bill has Republican Sen. Vince Polistina as a co-sponsor along with Democrats that include Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz, Shirley Turner, Joseph Vitale, Patrick Diegnan, and Vin Gopal.

The smoking ban evidently also has the backing of Dr. Herb Conaway, the chairman of the Health Committee in the Assembly.

Advocates of ban express confidence

“We applaud this bipartisan group of legislators from across New Jersey who understand that worker health must be a priority,” Cynthia Hallett, president and CEO of the Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights group, said in a statement.

“Atlantic City casino workers made the most of the lame duck session to grow legislative support for closing the casino smoking loophole that puts their health at risk,” she added.

“Now, we are confident that this legislation will pass both chambers and land on Governor Murphy’s desk in the coming months to make a smoke-free workplace a reality for thousands of casino workers in New Jersey.”

Longtime casino card dealer Nicole Vitola, who has become a key spokeswoman for the movement called Casino Employees Against Smoking’s Effects, predicted passage of the bill once it comes up for a vote.

“We don’t have time to wait,” Vitola said Wednesday. “Every day we go to work, we risk our health getting worse and worse — especially during yet another wave of COVID cases in our state. This is unacceptable. It’s time to get this bill passed as soon as possible, so that we no longer have to choose between our health and a paycheck.”

Smoking at the casinos was banned for about a year due to COVID-19 concerns, but the prohibition was lifted in time for last July 4 weekend, which began the busiest two months of the year for Atlantic City’s tourism industry.

Changing of the guard could be key

The main roadblock — perhaps the only roadblock — to a vote on the bill in the lame duck session was Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a powerful ally of the city’s casino operators.

Sweeney expressed the traditional argument that a smoking ban would deter many gamblers from visiting the casinos, putting thousands of jobs at risk if the properties lose money and have to close.

“Some people tell you [casinos] lose 16% of your business” if smoking is banned, Sweeney told The Associated Press last month.

But in the COVID era, smoking bans have taken root all over the country, and the correlation between bans and reduced revenue has been tenuous at best. Smoking ban advocates predict that other gamblers who currently stay away due to an aversion to smoke would fill any possible void from smokers staying home.

Sweeney was defeated for reelection in November by an obscure Republican challenger, truck driver Edward Durr. Monday was Sweeney’s last day in office, and proponents of the smoking ban hope to have better luck with incoming Senate President Nicholas Scutari.

Philadelphia, about an hour’s drive northwest of Atlantic City, has two casinos — Rivers and Live! — where smoking bans are in place by city order even though Pennsylvania officials lifted the prohibition last year.

Indoor water park for AC Boardwalk

Among other Atlantic City news, developer Bart Blatstein is promising an indoor water park will open in 2023 after years of delay.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held Wednesday, where Blatstein said, “How do I know it’s going to happen? Because I say so. It’s my money going into this place.”

A state-sponsored tax incentive could return as much as half of the estimated $100 million construction cost to Blatstein over a decade, if the attraction proves successful.

The “Island Waterpark,” projected to be 103,000 square feet, will include an adult section with alcohol available for purchase as well as manicures and foot massages. It will have a party room and retail space alongside a “lazy river” and water slides, plus a retractable roof.

The water park will be built adjacent to Showboat, a former casino that shuttered in 2014 and was later revived as a non-gaming hotel owned by Blatstein.

The Boardwalk attraction will not be the largest in New Jersey — that honor goes to the DreamWorks Water Park at American Dream Meadowlands, which at 370,000 square feet is the largest such park in North America.

Casino hotel surcharge bill passes

It took some amending to do it, but a bill to add a surcharge to Atlantic City hotel casino room costs passed in both the state Senate and Assembly on Monday.

In amendments to the bill, the surcharge was lowered from $3 per room per night to $2; the charge for hotels in the city that do not have a casino was eliminated; and the amount appropriated for hiring and retention of police and fire department personnel cannot exceed 37% of all surcharge revenue received by the city for the next three years.

The amended bill also makes the surcharge permanent, rather than for only two years.

The Office of Legislative Services estimates that the casino hotel surcharge will generate approximately $7.8 million annually for city coffers.

New blood coming at state casino agency

Matthew Doherty, executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, is planning to leave that role later this month after holding the position since 2018. With Sweeney’s departure from the Senate, CRDA Vice Chairman Rich Tolson also will be moving on, as he was effectively an appointee of the Senate president.

“I was a holdover,” Tolson told The Press of Atlantic City Wednesday. “They’re four-year terms, and I was in my ninth year.”

Incoming President Scutari is entitled to make recommendations to the governor for two of the 17 seats on the authority’s board.

Photo: Shutterstock

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