The Nov. 2 election in New Jersey will produce an Atlantic City-area state Senate race winner who backs an end to smoking in the city’s nine casinos, regardless of whom local residents choose. That fact, along with the support of Gov. Phil Murphy for the ban, could help prod lawmakers in the so-called “lame-duck session” toward seeking action in spite of the resistance of Senate President Stephen Sweeney.
Near the end of a one-hour Zoom call debate on Sunday night, the topic produced unequivocal responses. Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo, an Atlantic County Assembly Democrat who is running for state Senate, was first to answer.
Moderator David Wildstein noted, “It’s to the fault of neither of you, but the more stories I read about this issue in The Press of Atlantic City, the more confused I am as to where everybody stands. So let’s hit a reset button. Do you support banning smoking in casinos, yes or no?”
“Yes,” Mazzeo replied.
‘Can you top this?’ on ban sentiment
Republican candidate Vince Polistina elaborated on his agreement, saying, “We have been clear on this. [Mazzeo] is now coming late to the game and, you know, finally to the table. We have been clear on this from the start. There was no smoking while the pandemic was going on while people were wearing masks in the casinos. Casinos did fine. There’s no reason that exemption still exists.
“You’re not allowed to smoke on the Boardwalk. You’re not allowed to smoke on the beach. There’s no reason now why people would be smoking in these Atlantic City casinos. The exemption needs to end. I know the governor supports it, so hopefully we can get back to Trenton after this election and we can get it done, because those [employees] deserve clean air and a healthy, safe work environment.“
Mazzeo replied, “During the [pandemic], the governor was going to lift the ban, and we made calls to the governor’s office to make sure that that was extended even further. And as far as the banning on the boardwalks and the beaches, that was my legislation. And I’m in agreement. We have to continue to try to make sure that we ban smoking in the casinos.”
Polistina countered, “That’s an epiphany from over two weeks ago, because two weeks ago [Mazzeo] wanted to talk to Pennsylvania [lawmakers] and others about the issue. There’s no reason for this now — we’ve got to be done with it.“
“You know, we [Democrats] are the majority party in New Jersey, so we can talk to other legislators,” Mazzeo said. “It is competitive — there’s more people, more players involved here. But, you know, at the end of the day, I believe that the health and welfare of the people who work in the casinos is more important.”
Anti-smoking group heartened
The consensus was undoubtedly music to the ears of Cynthia Hallett, president and CEO of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights. She helped organize a trip to Las Vegas earlier this month so that three longtime Atlantic City casino employees could state their case to media covering the Global Gaming Expo (aka G2E).
Nicole Vitola, a 47-year-old table games dealer at Borgata and a mother of two, said, “Little did I know when I started, that with the game of chance I was playing with my customers, I also was playing with my health.”
Thousands of casino workers have spoken out since indoor smoking returned to casinos on July 4 weekend, when casinos reopened after being shuttered for more than two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The candidates are vying to replace Scott Brown, a Republican who has joined Democratic Governor Murphy’s administration as an advisor on Atlantic City issues within the state Department of Community Affairs Division of Local Government Services. The state Senate seat in question — in District 2 — is considered by many political analysts to be the most competitive of New Jersey’s 40 districts. Polistina has suggested that a victory by him would be a sign that Sweeney — a Democrat from another southern county, Gloucester — is losing his power in the region.
For years, Sweeney has opposed a ban on smoking in Atlantic City’s casinos, citing fears that it would alienate a significant portion of the gamblers that the nine casinos need to survive. The Casino Association of New Jersey, a trade association, agrees.
Supporters of the ban insist that the casinos will gain as many new customers as they lose, negating any drain on the bottom line.
The lame-duck session from mid-November until year’s end traditionally leads to passage of a number of bills regarding topics that incumbents prefer not to address before their reelection bids. But no bill will even come to a floor vote in the Senate unless Sweeney agrees to allow it.