Atlantic City Casino Labor Union, Attorney General Urges Dismissal Of Lawsuit That Seeks Smoking Ban

Written By David Danzis on April 30, 2024 - Last Updated on May 9, 2024
Woman smokes while playing slots at Hard Rock Atlantic City for a story on a labor union and the New Jersey attorney general urging the court to dismiss a smoking ban lawsuit

War makes for strange bedfellows, and the battle to ban smoking inside Atlantic City casinos has forged an unusual alliance between a powerful regional labor union, the gambling industry and the state of New Jersey.

The trio is pushing back against an outright smoking prohibition, arguing that doing so would cause a decline in business, ultimately leading to a loss of jobs, revenue and taxes.

On the other side are a grassroots casino employee movement and the local chapter of one of the United State’s oldest and largest unions who, together, are suing New Jersey in the hopes that the courts will put an end to the exemption for AC casinos in the state’s smoke-free workplace law. After years of being let down by the legislative process, the groups’ most recent legal strategy is taking aim at the constitutionality of the casino loophole.

It is a potentially precedent-setting case that is being closely watched by the entire gaming industry.

Atlantic City casino smoking ban is an 18-year drama in the making

The saga took another turn Monday, as UNITE Here Local 54, which represents approximately 10,000 casino employees in AC, and the NJ attorney general asked a state Superior Court judge to throw out the lawsuit.

According to court documents, Local 54 says that up to a third of its members are at risk of losing their jobs and means of supporting their families if a smoking ban is enacted. Attorney General Matthew Platkin, representing Gov. Phil Murphy and the state health department, argued that the plaintiff’s claims were without merit and urged the court to dismiss the matter.

United Auto Workers Region 9 – which represents table games dealers at Bally’s Atlantic City, Caesars Atlantic City and Tropicana Atlantic City – along with Casino Employees Against Smoking’s Effects, or C.E.A.S.E., filed a lawsuit on April 5 in Mercer County.

The three-count suit accuses Murphy and the NJ Department of Health of violating Atlantic City casino workers’ rights to safety and equal protection under the law by exempting their places of work from the 2006 Smoke-Free Air Act. Furthermore, the suit alleges the Smoke-Free Air Act is an unconstitutional special law.

Backdrop for AC casino smoking ban lawsuit

Banning smoking inside Atlantic City’s nine casinos has been hotly debated since the state’s COVID-19 emergency order was lifted in July 2021, and smokers were, once again, permitted to light up on gaming floors.

A city ordinance caps indoor smoking to no more than 25% of the casino floor, although enforcement of the rule is subjective.

Bills to end the casino loophole have been introduced in both the state Senate and General Assembly. The companion pieces of legislation have more than enough votes to pass the State Legislature, assuming the sponsors or co-sponsors (which exceeds two-thirds of the governing body) all support the measure. Murphy has said he would sign the ban into law.

Donna DeCaprio, president of Local 54, along with other regional business organizations, such as the Greater Atlantic City Chamber and the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey, testified against the bills during hearings in Trenton.

Where Local 54 stands on AC casino smoking ban debate

DeCaprio told the Associated Press on Monday that a total smoking ban would be “catastrophic.” Local 54 represents non-dealers in casinos, such as sanitation workers, beverage servers, bartenders, porters and bellhops.

“We support the health and safety of our members, and believe that improvements to the current work environment must be made. A balance needs to be reached that will both protect worker health and preserve good jobs.”

DeCaprio told the Associated Press that between 50% and 72% of all gambling revenue won from in-person gamblers comes from smoking sections.

The union backs legislative proposals that uphold the 25% smoking area limit on the casino floor. Additionally, they propose allowing smoking in unenclosed areas with slot machines that are at least 15 feet away from live dealer table games and permitting enclosed, separately ventilated smoking rooms without compelling workers to work there against their will.

Anti-smoking advocates respond to dismissal request

Nicole Vitola, a founding member of C.E.A.S.E and dealer at AC’s Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, criticized Local 54’s stance, likening it to supporting casino management’s interests over worker well-being.

“Instead of fighting for the health and safety of workers, Local 54 is battling in a court of law to allow casinos to keep poisoning their members with toxic secondhand smoke,” she told the Associated Press.

Nancy Erika Smith, the attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the UAW and C.E.A.S.E, expressed surprise at Local 54’s stance, emphasizing the importance of health and safety for all workers.

“I have never seen a union fight against the health and safety of their members, not once. Luckily, Unite’s economic arguments, while false, have absolutely no relevance to the constitutional question at hand.”

Photo by Wayne Parry / AP Photo
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David Danzis

David Danzis is the lead writer for PlayNJ. He is a New Jersey native and honors graduate of Rutgers University. As a newspaper reporter for the New Jersey Herald and Press of Atlantic City, David earned statewide awards for his coverage of politics, government, education, sports, and business. Today, he is PlayNJ’s Atlantic City “insider” and gaming industry expert on casinos, sports betting, and online gambling. David lives in Atlantic County, NJ with his wife and two children.

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