While he hasn’t been New Jersey’s governor since 2006 or its state Senate’s president since 2010, no one in the legislature has more statewide name recognition than Sen. Richard Codey. So this week’s announcement that Codey had joined the growing wave of lawmakers backing a ban on smoking in Atlantic City’s casinos is a significant boost for that cause.
Codey is the longest-tenured state legislator in New Jersey history, having served in the Assembly from 1974-82 and in the state Senate ever since. It’s also quite relevant that while serving as governor 16 years ago, Codey signed into law the New Jersey Smoke-Free Air Act, which prohibited indoor smoking in most public places — though not in casinos.
“When I was governor, we passed smoke-free legislation that covered almost all of our state,” Codey said in a statement Monday. “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.”
The 2006 ban allowed for smoking in “casino gaming areas and casino simulcasting facilities” in up to 20% of the gaming floor space. The other exceptions were for hotels and motels to allow smoking in up to 20% of guest rooms, and for cigar bars and tobacco retail establishments.
Who else is for the ban?
Codey is the eighth state senator to co-sponsor S264, a bill which simply deletes the portion of the old law that includes an exemption for casinos.
In a statement that’s part of the new bill, supporters say, “The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that casino workers are at greater risk for lung and heart disease because of secondhand smoke, and a study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that the air in casinos can have up to 50 times more cancer-causing particles than the air on rush-hour highways.”
The primary sponsors of the bill are Democratic Senators Shirley Turner and Joseph Vitale, with Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz, Vin Gopal, and Patrick Diegnan also supporting it on the Democratic side.
Sen. Vince Polistina, who represents the Atlantic City area, also has signed on, along with fellow South Jersey Republican Michael Testa.
Nicole Vitola, co-leader of Casino Employees Against Smoking’s Effects (CEASE), which has organized thousands of Atlantic City casino workers since smoking returned in July 2021, applauded the latest bill sponsorship.
“Governor Codey has long been a champion of healthy indoor air in order to protect workers’ health,” Vitola said in a statement. “We are grateful that he is adding his critical voice to our fight to finish the job that began in 2006. We deserve the same protections as every other worker in New Jersey.”
Cynthia Hallett, president and CEO of the Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights advocacy group, said that Codey “has heard every single, tired scare tactic the industry can come up with — and he knows they aren’t true. We applaud his leadership to protect every worker in New Jersey, recognizing that no one should have to choose between their health and a paycheck.”
Looking back to 2006
Codey signed the smoking-ban bill into law in his final week in office in 2006, spearheading the effort against headwinds from a variety of powerful lobbying groups, including the New Jersey Restaurant Association. The bill also raised the minimum age to buy cigarettes from 18 to 19.
Ten other states had already passed similar anti-smoking laws at the time, including New York and Connecticut.
The New Jersey bill stalled for months until Codey, after hearing concerns from South Jersey lawmakers about the possible impact on the Atlantic City casino industry, agreed to exempt the casinos from the prohibition.
Then-Assemblyman Bill Baroni — a Republican who in 2016 was convicted of fraud and conspiracy charges for his role in the “Bridgegate” scandal, before the U.S. Supreme Court later overturned those convictions four years later — quipped, “This is the day New Jersey takes on and defeats Joe Camel.”
But Democratic Assemblyman Joseph Cryan countered, “It sticks to my craw to no end that the casino exemption is there.”
Opposition to bill remains
The leading opponent of the casino smoking ban bill is the Casino Association of New Jersey, which last week issued the following statement from Joe Lupo, president of the association and of the Hard Rock casino:
“Banning smoking completely and permanently 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. A decline in our customer base would also cause economic hardship to a large portion of the 20,000 employees who rely on the tips and customer volume that our industry provides.”