Atlantic City Casino Smoking Ban Momentum Continues To Build

End of smoking on casino floors seems plausible before the city's summer peak
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The effort to ban smoking at Atlantic City’s casinos has gained more momentum this week.

On Monday, state Sen. Michael Testa — who has a number of residents in his district who work in Atlantic City — became the seventh sponsor, and second Republican backer, of a bill that would do just that.

A day later, bill sponsor Joseph Vitale, who also is the chairman of the Senate Health Committee, told the New Jersey Monitor that he expects to advance the bill early in the spring season.

Testa said in a statement: “Casino workers should have the same right to work in a safe and healthy environment as any other worker in our state. That’s why I’m co-sponsoring S264 to eliminate the casino smoking loophole. We can both protect the health of casino workers and their guests, while safeguarding our state’s thriving gaming industry.”

Vitale and state Sen. Shirley Turner are the primary sponsors and already had been joined by Democrats Patrick Diegnan, Teresa Ruiz, and Vin Gopal, as well as Republican Vince Polistina.

“They try to cloud the argument with job loss or financial ruin,” said Vitale. “None of that will happen, but they like to scare employees — ‘You’ll lose your job if we stop smoking in the casino,’ notwithstanding the fact that the croupiers are getting lung cancer and emphysema because people constantly blow smoke in their faces.”

COVID-19 and the smoking ban

The long-simmering issue about smoking in casinos reached a head early in the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Once casinos reopened on that July 4 weekend after closing in March, a smoking ban was in effect. That ban lasted a year before Gov. Phil Murphy reinstated smoking as the casinos hit their seasonal peak last summer.

No more than 20% of the casino floor can be designated for smoking, but critics have said that is 20% too much given that no other sector is exempt.

“We thank Sen. Testa for co-sponsoring this bipartisan legislation after meeting with us and hearing our concerns about our health,” said Nicole Vitola, co-leader of Casino Employees Against Smoking’s Effects (CEASE), which has organized thousands of AC casino workers since smoking returned in July 2021.

“We have support from Republicans and Democrats, as well as legislators across New Jersey, because they recognize that it’s wrong to treat us differently than every other worker in our state. Sen. Testa understands the urgency of our fight, and we are grateful that he is joining us to get this bill across the finish line.”

“We thank Sen. Testa for understanding that no worker should have to choose between their health and a paycheck,” added Cynthia Hallett, president and CEO of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights. “We are building a durable coalition that includes the voices of thousands of casino workers and will be heard over the appeals of Big Tobacco and gaming lobbyists.”

Restaurants and bars in Atlantic City casinos have had a smoking ban since 2006, but gaming floors have been an exception that casino executives have insisted is crucial to the viability of the industry that is a mainstay of the South Jersey economy.

Is a smoking ban risky business?

The key opponent to an Atlantic City casino smoking ban was former state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who was ousted in a stunning upset in November by little-known truck driver Edward Durr.

A month later, Sweeney appeared before a Senate committee with an apocalyptic vision of the industry should a series of tax breaks not be implemented.

“We are risking four casinos closing,” Sweeney bluntly told the committee of the perils of not passing a revision of the five-year-old payments-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) plan. “I do not want that to happen. I don’t want to have a situation where it’s, ‘I told you that place was going to close, and it closed.’ I don’t want to get to say I was right.”

Sweeney — who was mostly successful in getting the tax breaks passed and signed into law in the lame duck session — also has warned of financial peril for the casinos if a complete smoking ban was enacted. The sentiment is that the ban would lead to smokers staying home, potentially costing the jobs of casino hospitality workers.

Murphy has said he will sign a smoking ban bill if it is passed by the legislature, but advocates have pressed him to do more to advance the argument.

The Casino Association of New Jersey, however, continues in its opposition.

“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,” Joe Lupo, president of the association and of the Hard Rock casino, said in a statement. “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.”

Photo: Shutterstock

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