Supporters of a ban on all smoking inside Atlantic City casinos were met with mixed news last week, as backing from New Jersey elected officials reached key milestones just as the legislature kicked off its summer-long break.
Four more state senators and six more Assembly members signed on as co-sponsors to identical bills that would impose the ban, which already has the support of Gov. Phil Murphy as well as the Atlantic City Council.
A majority of Assembly members now back the ban as co-sponsors, so all that is needed there is a committee hearing to advance the bill and then a vote of the full Assembly that already seems predetermined.
Exactly half of the 40 state senators are now also co-sponsoring legislation to enact the ban, so Senate passage would hardly be a heavy lift. Several more legislators informally have indicated their support even though they are not specifically signed on as co-sponsors.
The new Senate co-sponsors are Democrats Linda Greenstein, Nia Gill, and Nellie Pou and Republican Anthony Bucco. The new Assembly co-sponsors are Democrats James Kennedy, Angela McKnight, Raj Muhjeri, Robert Karabinchak, and Shavonda Sumter and Republican Robert Clifton.
Majorities of the health committees in the Senate and Assembly are co-sponsors, as well as a majority of South Jersey Democrats, including the entire Atlantic City-area delegation.
Senate President Nicholas Scutari, who holds the most powerful legislative role in Trenton, last week discussed with reporters his opinion on smoking in casinos.
“Do I think people should smoke indoors?” Scutari said. “I do not. I don’t like smoke. I’ve never been a smoker. But there are economic things, there are other items at work there. We’ve got to work with the industry, work with the advocates. But I think at some point, you’re gonna see something.”
End of the budget year
The announcement on new co-sponsors was made on June 30, the last day of the state’s fiscal year. Lawmakers spend months working sometimes long hours on getting a budget passed — and once they do, they disappear from Trenton until in September after Labor Day.
Still, one smoking ban backer expressed pleasure at the latest support.
“We have made incredible progress since the legislative session began in the winter,” Pete Nacarelli, co-leader of Casino Employees Against Smoking’s Effects, said in a statement.
“We started this fight a year ago — Fourth of July marked one year since poisonous smoking came back to our workplaces — knowing little about politics or the legislative process. Now, we’ve got a majority of legislators in both chambers backing our bill. It’s amazing what we’ve been able to achieve so far, but we will continue fighting — along with our dozens of champions in the legislature — until we get this done. Our health and our lives are on the line.”
Cynthia Hallett, president and CEO of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, vowed, “We will keep this issue front-and-center over the summer, and work to make sure it’s a top priority when legislators return to Trenton in September. Especially in light of the new reality that smoke-free casinos are performing better than their smoking counterparts, there’s no reason not to act. We are grateful to be working with so many champions who will help us get this bill across the finish line.”
Is a smoking ban really bad for casino business?
Hallett was referring to a recent report by Las Vegas-based C3 Gaming that runs counter to the Casino Association of New Jersey’s contention that a smoking ban would significantly harm the industry economically.
“With the conversion of the Rivers Philadelphia to a non-smoking property, the ongoing prohibition of smoking in Connecticut’s two casinos, and the smoking prohibition in New York’s commercial casinos, gamers in the region have few options left,” according to the report, which pointed to just four eastern Pennsylvania casinos that could be patronized while smoking.
“Data from multiple jurisdictions clearly indicates that banning smoking no longer causes a dramatic drop in gaming revenue. In fact, non-smoking properties appear to be performing better than their counterparts that continue to allow smoking,” the report stated.
The United Auto Workers union, which represents Atlantic City’s table game dealers, wrote a letter to lawmakers that read in part, “Our members include dealers who sit inches away from patrons who blow smoke directly into their face for eight hours a day, every single day. It is simply unacceptable knowing what we know about the dangers of secondhand smoke. It is unacceptable knowing that even brief exposure to secondhand smoke can be harmful to someone’s health.
“According to the CDC, secondhand smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals of which hundreds are toxic and at least 70 can cause cancer. No worker in the state of NJ should be forced to breathe cancer-causing chemicals every single day.”
Earlier report warned of layoffs
The report the casinos commissioned from Spectrum Gaming concluded in February that a smoking ban “could lead to a loss of between 1,000 and 2,500 jobs and as much as a 10.9% decline in revenue.” Also, a 6.5% decline in non-gaming revenue was projected by Spectrum, which it said could mean an overall decrease of $44 million in state tax revenue.
“This new report clearly demonstrates that a smoking ban would have long-term financial implications for the industry and the region, placing Atlantic City casinos at a competitive disadvantage with Pennsylvania casinos where smoking is permitted,” association President Joe Lupo said at the time.
“The casino industry has taken significant steps over the years to create a healthier environment for employees and patrons, including limiting smoking to just a fraction of the floor space,” Lupo added. “We understand this is a difficult issue, but it is important that we create a welcoming and inclusive environment for all of our guests, which include smokers and non-smokers.”
A loophole carved for casinos in the state’s ban on indoor smoking allows smoking areas to take up 25% of the gambling floor.
A recent poll by Stockton University reported 62% of state residents in favor of a smoking ban at casinos while 31% expressed opposition. But Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small Sr. is aligned with casino executives’ concerns that ending smoking would be harmful to the economic bottom line of those facilities.