Anti-smoking advocates and casino employees are fuming that New Jersey lawmakers gave tax breaks to Atlantic City casinos while overlooking their cause.
A bill pending in the State Legislature to eliminate the indoor smoking ban exemption for Atlantic City casinos seemed destined to go stale in the current lame-duck session.
But it is starting to look like they may be able to breathe a little easier.
PoliticoNJ reported Wednesday that Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Burlington, chair of the health committee, wants to hear the bill before the session expires on Jan. 11, 2022.
“I’d like to get it done,” Conaway, a physician and Burlington County health director, told the news outlet. “We have a number of employees who, as a condition of their work, are exposed to this carcinogen.”
Employees in Atlantic City casinos speak out
After NJ Gov. Phil Murphy signed two bills into law giving Atlantic City casinos tax breaks, a group of anti-smoking casino workers lashed out.
A group called Casino Employees Against Smoking’s Effects, or C.E.A.S.E., has been advocating for a change to NJ’s loophole law for months.
“Casinos may be breathing a sigh of relief today, but we’re still breathing secondhand smoke that jeopardizes our health,” C.E.A.S.E. said in a statement Wednesday. “We are sick and tired of the smoke, and we won’t get a break from the smoke during the holidays — we’ll be in the casinos, working to support our families. We cannot wait any longer for legislators to eliminate the loophole.”
More anti-smoking allies join fight in Trenton
Conaway’s push comes just days after Assembly Deputy Speaker Paul Moriarty, D-Gloucester, Camden, signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill (S1878/A4541).
“It is unconscionable that any workers in New Jersey would knowingly be subjected to carcinogens in the workplace,” Moriarty said. “It is time for New Jersey to treat casino employees as equal to other service industry workers and prohibit smoking in casinos.”
Murphy has already publicly stated he would sign a bill eliminating the exemption allowing smoking in Atlantic City casinos.
“I’ve said this unequivocally…If legislation comes to my desk that would ban smoking in casinos, you should assume that I will sign it,” the governor said in October.
AC casino workers ‘cannot wait any longer’
Cynthia Hallett, president and CEO of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, said the workers are thankful for Murphy’s support, but they want action now.
“The governor must go further and publicly call for (Senate President Steve) Sweeney and Speaker (Craig) Coughlin to send a bill to his desk in the lame-duck session. Atlantic City casino workers cannot wait any longer,” she said recently.
Sweeney has been hesitant to change the 2006 law allowing smoking on up to 25% of a casino floor. The longtime Senate president lost his reelection bid in November.
“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,” Sweeney said in May.
Atlantic City casinos say smoking ban will hurt business
The Casino Association of New Jersey, the industry’s lobbying group, has said a smoking ban in Atlantic City casinos would lead to lost revenues and job losses.
“Going completely nonsmoking would place Atlantic City casinos at a competitive disadvantage with other nearby casinos that allow smoking,” CANJ said. “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.”
The (very) brief history of smoke-free Atlantic City casinos
Anti-smoking advocates contend that the industry’s position is not valid.
Murphy issued a temporary indoor smoking ban when casinos reopened in July 2020. That followed a COVID-19 shutdown that lasted over 100 days. The ban expired in July of this year.
Anti-smoking groups point to last year’s revenue and profit figures as proof people will still come to Atlantic City casinos.
However, nearly all gambling parlors in the U.S. went smoke-free because of COVID.
The only other time Atlantic City casinos went smoke-free was in October 2008. The experiment lasted a few weeks before the casinos reversed course.
The failed Revel Casino Hotel opened as a smoke-free option on the Atlantic City Boardwalk in 2012. It closed less than two years later. Revel’s troubles included unsustainable debt, poor treatment of core gamblers and the smoking ban.
AGA boss speaks on casino smoking
The American Gaming Association, the lobbying group for all commercial and tribal casinos in the U.S., does not have an official position on casino smoking.
But, AGA President and CEO Bill Miller told PlayNJ during an exclusive interview that those casino operators who have either been smoke-free or pivoted to a smoking ban have not been hurt financially.
“I will say, I’ve certainly heard from different operators that during COVID and having smoking bans on properties hasn’t led to a decrease in business. And that has been one of the areas that people had been previously concerned about,” Miller said.
He said individual properties should decide whether or not to allow smoking. Miller added that those who have did so “without detrimental effects.”
AP Photo/ Wayne Parry