With efforts to permanently ban smoking inside Atlantic City casinos gaining momentum among Trenton lawmakers, a recent study predicts such a move would cost jobs, revenue and state taxes.
Proponents of a smoking ban, including active casino employees and workplace advocacy organizations, said the industry-commissioned report highlights how gaming companies are putting profits ahead of workers’ health.
Spectrum Gaming Group, an independent consulting and analytics firm, estimates as many as 2,500 jobs could be eliminated in the first year of a smoking ban at Atlantic City’s nine casinos. Spectrum also estimates potential declines in gambling and non-gambling revenues of as much as 10.9% and 6.5%, respectively.
According to the report, the amount of gambling-related taxes collected by New Jersey could drop by as much as $44 million.
Spectrum’s report “offers no opinion or recommendation whether smoking should be allowed on casino floors.”
‘Not the time’ for an Atlantic City casino smoking ban
The Casino Association of New Jersey, the industry’s lobbying group, paid for the Spectrum report.
The gambling parlors are concerned that a smoking ban will harm South Jersey’s largest economic engine.
Joe Lupo, president of both the CANJ and Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, said the intent of the report is “to ensure a complete understanding of the ramifications of a (smoking) ban on the city and the region.”
In response to Spectrum’s findings, Lupo said, “now is not the time to enact a smoking ban.”
“This new report clearly demonstrates that a smoking ban would have long-term financial implications for the industry and the region, placing Atlantic City casinos at a competitive disadvantage with Pennsylvania casinos where smoking is permitted,” he said. “The (CANJ) recognizes the concerns of our employees and others who advocate the elimination of smoking in our properties.”
Do smoking and gambling really go hand-in-hand?
A combination of state law and city ordinance permits smoking on up to 25% of the gaming floor in Atlantic City casinos.
Spectrum estimates that 21% of Atlantic City casino gamblers are smokers
According to the new report and Spectrum’s 2008 visitor profile survey, smokers tend to spend more money (gambling and non-gambling) and more time on the casino floor per capita.
A smoking ban could lead to a 5% to 11.9% decline in gambling revenue from smoking customers. Conversely, the report estimated that non-smokers would only increase their play by 1% to 1.5%.
Overall, a smoking ban could cause gambling revenue to decline between 4.2% and 10.9%.
According to the report, the resulting job losses could be between 1,021 and 2,512.
Spectrum estimates gambling taxes and fees collected by New Jersey could drop anywhere between $17.2 million to $44 million.
Anti-smoking casino workers say employers choose profits over people
Not everyone is buying the report’s findings or the dire financial picture being painted.
Casino Employees Against Smoking’s (Harmful) Effects, or C.E.A.S.E., comprises about 2,200 anti-smoking Atlantic City workers.
Nicole Vitola, a dealer at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa and co-leader of C.E.A.S.E., said casino workers “cannot continue to choose between our health and a paycheck.”
“This study, paid for by the casino industry, shows once again that they care more about outdated business practices than they do about the lives and health of their workers,” she said, adding the “casinos’ blatant disregard for our well-being is disgraceful.”
Americans for Non-Smokers’ Rights point to an October exclusive interview with American Gaming Association President/CEO Bill Miller. During the one-on-one with PlayNJ, Miller said casino smoking bans have not led to a “decrease in business.”
Small sample size of smoking bans in Atlantic City casinos
In Atlantic City’s 43-year history of legalized gambling, there are but a few instances when smoking has not been permitted. As such, the long-term impact of an outright Atlantic City casino smoking ban is unknown.
In 2006, the state passed the Smoke-free Air Act, which banned indoor smoking in all public places. The law allowed some exemptions, including casinos and a select number of cigar lounges.
Atlantic City passed an ordinance limiting smoking to 25% of the casino floor the following year.
In October 2008, the city banned casino smoking entirely. The city reversed course, and smoking returned four weeks later.
Revel Casino Hotel opened in 2012 as the first smoke-free casino in Atlantic City. The $2.4 billion Boardwalk casino closed in 2014.
New Jersey prohibited smoking in all Atlantic City casinos from July 2, 2020, until July 4, 2021, due to COVID-19.
No debate on COVID-19’s impact on AC, casinos
A smoking ban may or may not hurt the city’s casinos. But one thing certainly did: COVID-19.
And although the growth of online gambling and sports betting creates a rosy picture of the industry’s health, Atlantic City casinos have yet to recover fully.
According to state data, in-person gambling revenue across the city was down 5% in 2021 compared to pre-pandemic 2019.
Last year, seven of the nine Atlantic City casinos reported less revenue from tables and slots than two years ago. The same number of casinos saw double-digit percentage declines in the amount of money gambled.
Current casino employment levels are down more than 21% from a recent high of 30,217 in July 2018 and down more than 50% from the industry’s peak levels in 2003.
Vehicle and air traffic data show visitation levels to Atlantic City are the lowest in more than a decade.
Lawmakers appear ready to act on smoking ban
Some state officials are taking steps toward a permanent smoking ban inside Atlantic City casinos.
A pair of bipartisan bills to close the loophole exempting Atlantic City casinos from the 2006 Smoke-free Air Act were introduced earlier this year.
Committee hearings in both the state Senate and General Assembly could start in March.
Gov. Phil Murphy (D) has said he would sign legislation to ban smoking in casinos.
All three of Atlantic County’s state representatives support a smoking ban in Atlantic City casinos.
“Casino workers shouldn’t have to be exposed to dangerous and unhealthy conditions in their workplace just to appease an increasingly small minority of customers who want to smoke while they gamble,” said state Sen. Vince Polistina (R).
AP Photo/Wayne Parry