A number of major medical groups — including the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, and the American Lung Association — recently wrote a letter to New Jersey lawmakers offering support for bills that would ban smoking in Atlantic City casinos.
“Every day that passes is another day in which these workers are unnecessarily exposed to the toxic chemicals from their smoke-filled workplace,” the groups wrote in a joint letter.
“The scientific evidence is clear: There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke causes serious diseases and premature death among nonsmokers. That’s why all workplaces and public places, including restaurants, bars, and casinos should be smoke-free. Everyone deserves the right to breathe smoke-free air.”
But even with nearly half of the state legislature already having endorsed such measures, time is not on the side of ban supporters.
The state’s fiscal year ends June 30, when the next budget is due. And neither the state Senate nor Assembly health committees have set a hearing date for the bills.
That would seem to mean that the issue will not be addressed until after lawmakers take a two-month break and resume business after Labor Day.
Report suggests AC can survive a ban
Not even a report issued last week by Las Vegas-based C3 Gaming, which suggested such a ban would not harm the bottom line of Atlantic City casinos, appears to have moved the needle in terms of state legislative action.
According to the report, the COVID-19 pandemic upended longtime casino visitor expectations — with an end to room service, no more buffets, and no guarantee of daily housekeeping.
“The pandemic altered consumer expectations and consumer behavior in virtually every industry, including retail, entertainment, lodging, dining, and casino gaming. One of those changes [is] in attitudes towards smoking in casinos,” the report’s authors wrote.
“Data from multiple jurisdictions clearly indicates that banning smoking no longer causes a dramatic drop in gaming revenue,” the report continued. “In fact, non-smoking properties appear to be performing better than their counterparts that continue to allow smoking.”
Smoking bans in New York and Connecticut, and a smoke-free policy at Rivers Casino Philadelphia also means that gamblers who prefer to smoke may not shun Atlantic City if a ban is imposed.
At Rivers Casino, customers can use a restaurant patio to smoke, and that could be an option for Atlantic City casino visitors, if the ban is enacted.
‘Talking’ but not acting
State Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin told NJ Advance Media last week that state lawmakers are “actively talking” about the smoking ban bill — including the Assembly version. But at this late juncture, the budget inevitably becomes the key focus.
As far as a vote on the ban, Coughlin said: “That’s something that we, obviously — we’ve got to strike the balance we always have to do.”
“Casinos will tell you they’re gonna lose people. And we have to lean somewhere and lean on the side of health care for people and employees,” Coughlin added. “Trying to get that done and figure out the bill that works is something we’re still actively talking about.”
The summer months of June, July, and August are always a key period for seasonal Atlantic City casinos to make or break their year — especially in 2022, after two COVID-impacted summers.
That meant an immediate enactment of a ban figured to be an uphill fight, given the fact that four Atlantic City casinos were shuttered in 2014 and a fifth shut down in 2016. But lawmakers could approve a ban to become effective after the key revenue season. That approach now seems increasingly unlikely.
A Stockton University poll released in April found that 62% of New Jersey residents backed a smoking ban, with 31% opposed.
A majority of members on the Senate and Assembly Health Committees are co-sponsors of smoking ban bills, a majority of South Jersey Assembly Democrats are co-sponsoring the bill, and every legislator in the Atlantic City area backs the ban.
Gov. Phil Murphy, meanwhile, repeatedly has said that he would sign such bills into law.
But in the current economic environment, smoking ban proposals may well have to wait out a long, hot summer.