Smokers are now free to light up in Pennsylvania casinos, but they will have no such luck — at least for now — if they cross the state line to visit Atlantic City properties.
With the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board having just ended the ban, Gov. Phil Murphy was asked at his press conference on Monday if there was any word on New Jersey soon going down the same path.
“No news on the smoking ban,” said Murphy, almost completely echoing the same few words he has had on the topic all year.
Both states banned smoking in casinos when those sites were allowed to reopen last summer with strict COVID-19-related limitations. That change delighted advocates of smoking bans — while leaving some smokers fuming.
What to do, however, now that each state’s mandates on mask-wearing and social distancing are mostly or completely gone, in the wake of vaccination levels in each state that are exceeding the national average?
“We made the determination that the smoking ban was directly related to mask wearing, and it was time to lift it,” Pennsylvania gaming board spokesman Doug Harbach told Penn Bets on Monday by email.
Pressure to keep/end the ban for elected officials
One advocacy group, the Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, said in a statement on Monday that Pennsylvania should reconsider its decision to resume the status quo.
“Indoor smoking is a pre-COVID relic that should not return,” said group President Cynthia Hallett in the statement. “It’s misguided and dangerous to revert back and put the health of gaming employees and guests at risk.”
But casino operators have long recognized a link between smoking and gambling, so many traditionally have pushed back on talk of smoking bans. Further complicating the issue for lawmakers is that an end of smoking seems likely to lead to a reduction in badly needed tax revenue.
The Casino Association of New Jersey (CANJ) recently issued a formal objection to the idea of a ban, issuing a statement:
“A smoking ban would have a significant adverse effect on Atlantic City, resulting in a decline in customers, which would cause job loss and ultimately, a decline in tax revenue that benefits the state and local economy, as well as New Jersey seniors and persons with disabilities.”
In fact, some industry officials suggest the end to a smoking ban in a neighboring state such as Pennsylvania could chase gambling spending across the border if Atlantic City casinos remain smoke-free. State Senate President Stephen Sweeney historically has been opposed to a ban, believing such a change could lead to a casino closure and a loss of thousands of jobs in the region.
Yet there also are claims that whatever money is lost from smoking gamblers who stay home will be substituted with new dollars from those who would visit the casinos if they knew there was no smoking there.
The background on the loophole
When state lawmakers passed the New Jersey Smoke-Free Air Act in 2007, lobbyists for casinos and simulcasting horse racing facilities were successful in gaining an exemption from the law.
Atlantic City, however, passed a local ordinance allowing for smoking on no more than 25% of casino gaming floors — which is why many short-time casino visitors aren’t likely to notice that a complete ban isn’t in place already.
The privately operated casinos in the city are free to ban smoking completely, of course — but that choice only has been made at Revel, the $2.4 billion casino that had its lavish opening in 2012 and its ignominious closure in 2014. (The property eventually abandoned the ban after a year, but by then it was too late.)
When the Associated Press polled South Jersey gamblers in 2018 on what improvements they would like to see at the Ocean Resort Casino that was about to open on the site of the former Revel property, an absence of a smoking ban was near the top of the list.
A non-scientific poll on The Press of Atlantic City newspaper’s website as of Monday showed just 21% in favor of a resumption of smoking at the casinos.
Yes, it is an election year
Gov. Murphy and all 120 lawmakers in the state Senate and Assembly are up for election in November, and choosing which side of the smoking debate to please and which to disappoint is not an easy decision.
At this point, the focus remains on Murphy, whose emergency executive powers enable him to determine such matters. But such powers gradually are being diminished each month, and it’s not plausible that Murphy can delay a decision until after the election.
Murphy initially announced last September, when indoor dining resumed in the state, that facilities such as casinos that were exempt from smoking restrictions could allow smoking once again. But within 48 hours, a firestorm of criticism on public health grounds led Murphy to reverse his own decision.
New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, California, and Colorado are among almost two dozen states that ban smoking in “state-regulated gambling” locations. So in New York, for example, that means no smoking in the four commercial casinos — while tribal casino operators are free to make their own choices on that sovereign land.
The closest Murphy may have come to tipping his hand on the debate came last month when, after again stating “no opinion yet” on the issue, Murphy added that smoking ban advocates “make a very compelling case.”
But is that a hint to those advocates that he is on their side — or a preemptive attempt to show that he closely evaluated their arguments before he ends the ban at casinos?
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