Atlantic City Casino Smoking Ban Supporters Rally For Their Cause

Bipartisan support for bills continues to grow, but industry opposition remains

More than 40 of the 120 state lawmakers in New Jersey have now become co-sponsors of bills in the state Assembly and Senate to end the loophole that allows only casinos to permit indoor smoking in the state.

Leaders of the effort turned up in Atlantic City on Tuesday to flex their growing political muscle, with more than 250 workers employed by the city’s nine casinos appearing at a rally at McClinton Waterfront Park.

Just days earlier, Assembly Health Committee member Sadaf Jaffer was joined by two fellow Democrats and a Republican as part of the bipartisan effort to enact the casino smoking ban. Majorities in the Assembly and Senate Health Committees are now sponsoring identical bills, which bodes well for progress toward votes by each full chamber.

“As a member of the Assembly Health Committee, I’m committed to supporting legislation that protects the health of New Jersey workers,” Jaffer said in a statement. “Casino workers are no exception — they deserve to have safe and healthy work environments. I’m proud to sponsor A2151.”

The event was held Tuesday to mark the 16th anniversary of the statewide smoke-free air bill that created the casino loophole. The governor at the time, current state Sen. Richard Codey, is one of the sponsors of the Senate bill.

“When I was governor, we passed smoke-free legislation that covered almost all of our state,” Codey said in a statement in February announcing his co-sponsorship. “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.

At the rally, casino workers were joined by Sen. Vince Polistina and Assemblyman Don Guardian — both Republicans representing Atlantic County — and several Democratic lawmakers who make up the majority of membership in each chamber.

Gov. Phil Murphy has been on record for the past year saying he would sign a casino smoking ban bill into law.

Emotions run high on both sides

Card dealer Nicole Vitola, a leader in the fight to ban smoking, said of the anniversary, “It’s been 16 years of cancer diagnoses; 16 years of respiratory illnesses; 16 years of pregnant women having to deal at smoking tables, worrying about what effect it was having on their unborn children; and 16 years of watching our beloved co-workers die. When is it going to be the right time for someone to care about our health? We will not wait any longer!”

Casino worker Lamont White added, “We know the bill will pass in the Health Committees. We have majorities co-sponsoring our bill. So we just need them to hold a hearing. The time for delay is over. We cannot keep breathing this poison at work.”

But the effort to ban smoking is getting significant pushback from the Casino Association of New Jersey, which is the trade group for Atlantic City’s nine casinos. The group recently commissioned a report that concluded there would be thousands of jobs lost and a significant loss in tax revenue to the state if the ban is implemented.

“Atlantic City has yet to see growth from pre-pandemic levels,” association President Joe Lupo told The Associated Press. “Employment at our casinos is at a 20-year low, with less than 50 percent of the workforce from 2003. Visitation to Atlantic City is at a 20-year low, while gas prices and tolls are increasing.

“Land-based casino revenue remains at an almost 50 percent decrease from our peak in 2006,” added Lupo, referring to the year that Pennsylvania opened its first casinos — several along the border with New Jersey — and New York placed thousands of slot machines at facilities connected to the Yonkers Raceway and Aqueduct horse racing tracks. “Adding a smoking ban could cause a devastating effect to the community and state.”

What’s the next step?

Trenton lawmakers are in the midst of what is known as “budget season,” with the next non-budget sessions coming with a full Assembly voting date of May 2 and both Assembly and Senate voting sessions on May 9. The next date for such sessions in each chamber comes 10 days later, and the statehouse typically wraps up its budget and votes around June 30 before taking time off until after Labor Day.

Proponents of the smoking ban may have to consider whether to sway on-the-fence lawmakers with a promise to delay implementation of the ban until after the casino “high season” of June, July, and August. That also would allow for plenty of time before summer 2023 to judge whether a ban leads to as much economic chaos as the industry trade association claims it will.

Photo courtesy of CEASE


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