Smokers Welcomed Back To Atlantic City Casinos — For Now

Gov. Murphy suggests a casino smoking ban is up to the legislature, but he leans in favor of the idea
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Smokers who want to light up at Atlantic City casinos won a battle on Wednesday. But are they also one step closer to losing the long-term war?

Gov. Phil Murphy, speaking at a press conference, confirmed that he would not intervene to prevent a previously scheduled “sunset” on Sunday of the smoking ban at the nine gambling establishments that had been in place for a year due to COVID-19 health concerns.

But he added, “Would I be open-minded, would I be constructive on legislation — because I need to do this statutorily — that could come to me in the future, to extend that ban or make it more permanent? I would be very constructive on that.”

Murphy made the comment on the final day of the state’s fiscal year, just as lawmakers are headed for their annual summer break that for the most part doesn’t end until after Labor Day in September.

That would seem to give the casinos a breather (so to speak) on a smoking ban for the two biggest revenue-generating months of the year: July and August. Casino executives clearly state that they believe that the loss of dollars from a smoking ban far outweighs potential new dollars coming from gamblers sensitive enough to smoke that they would stay away.

But if the Democratic majorities in the state Senate and Assembly deem the issue sufficiently urgent, it’s possible for a new bill on the issue to be fast-tracked.

Who’s backing the ban — and who isn’t?

A Senate bill originally introduced in February 2020 and an identical Assembly bill introduced last August each have gained new sponsors recently.

Senators Shirley Turner of Mercer County and Joseph Vitale of Middlesex County have been joined by fellow Democrats Patrick Diegnan (Union), Teresa Ruiz (Essex), and retiring Loretta Weinberg (Bergen) and by Republican Chris Brown (Atlantic).

On the Assembly side, original sponsor Valerie Vainieri Huttle (Bergen) now has co-sponsors in fellow Democrats Shanique Speight (Essex) and Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (Mercer).

But the names of state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (Middlesex) are absent from each bill. So for gamblers who might be tempted to bet on how this issue plays out, a friendly wager on “limbo” could be the way to go.

Sweeney, an ironworker by trade who wields his Senate power with, well, an iron fist, last month told Bloomberg, “It’s an industry that’s struggling quite a bit. The argument before was that you’re going to chase away a percentage of their business, and nobody’s been able to disburse that thought process.”

Unless and until Sweeney is convinced that a smoking ban will not seriously harm the casinos’ bottom lines, the bill seems destined to languish as before in spite of the increased support from lawmakers.

As for Murphy, he appears to have deftly shifted the focus on the controversial issue from him to state lawmakers — just as Murphy and nearly all 120 Senate and Assembly members begin to launch campaigns for re-election this fall.

Anti-smoking rally on Boardwalk

Casino employees and leadership of the United Auto Workers (UAW), which represents dealers and other casino employees, gathered on the Boardwalk just hours before Murphy’s latest comments, seeking to make the casinos as smoke-free as nearly all other indoor establishments in the state.

“Casino employees came out in force today to protest the potential return of smoking at their workplaces, and now that fear is coming to fruition over the July 4th holiday,” Robert Zlotnick, Ph.D., a co-founder of Smoke-Free Atlantic City, said in a statement. “Instead of independence from the well-established health dangers of secondhand smoke, employees will have to choose between a paycheck and their health. Our state legislators must act and stop defending the indefensible.”

Cynthia Hallett, president and CEO of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights (ANR), criticized the ending of the ban.

“Casino workers will now have to choose between a paycheck and their health, and guests will have to endure the secondhand smoke that doesn’t abide by so-called smoking sections. It’s like having a peeing section of a pool — it doesn’t work,” Hallett said rather graphically.

“But we’ve always known that a legislative solution is the best way to finally close the casino loophole, and we are encouraged that Gov. Murphy appears supportive of legislative action,” Hallett added. “Casino employees and advocates will be holding him to account for putting actions behind his words. Atlantic City casinos have been thriving while operating smoke-free, and we’re glad that the message that smoke-free is good for business is being heard.”

PA also welcoming back smokers to its casinos

Murphy just two days earlier had refused to commit to accepting the “sunset” provision to end the smoking ban, even as Pennsylvania regulators were making definitive news on the topic.

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board on Monday announced an end to that state’s smoking ban at the 14 casinos located across the state — tying the decision to the fact that state leadership had just removed the mask-wearing mandate at most indoor facilities.

Had the smoking ban at Atlantic City casinos continued all summer, some New Jersey gamblers presumably would cross the border to light up as they tried to hit the jackpot.

But for supporters of the ban, any possible revenue loss is not as important as potential danger from secondhand smoke for non-smoking casino employees.

Pennsylvania casinos still must have at least 50% of the gaming floor be smoke-free, while an Atlantic City ordinance limits smoking areas to just 25% of the casino floor.

Photo by Shutterstock

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