Anti-smoking advocates who want Atlantic City casinos to ban people from lighting up indoors pleaded their case at the gambling industry’s largest annual gathering in Las Vegas.
Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights (ANR) held a press conference during Global Gaming Expo (G2E) at The Venetian Expo to speak out against indoor smoking at casinos. Atlantic City table games dealers behind the Facebook group Casino Employees Against Smoking Effects (CEASE) also voiced opposition.
The groups say the ongoing coronavirus pandemic makes the issue all the more pressing.
Cynthia Hallett, president and CEO of ANR, said COVID-19 has increased public awareness about respiratory health. Avoiding places that jeopardize health will be a lasting effect of the pandemic that casinos should adapt to, she said.
“The pandemic has brought about a sea-change in how businesses, including the gaming industry, think about safe and healthy workplaces and how going smoke-free can help,” Hallet said.
Smoking ban equals lost business, Atlantic City casinos say
Atlantic City casinos contend that indoor smoking, which is permitted on 25% of the gaming floor, is a necessary element of business in a highly competitive region.
“Going completely nonsmoking would place Atlantic City casinos at a competitive disadvantage with other nearby casinos that allow smoking,” the Casino Association of New Jersey said in a statement. “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.”
Correlation does not equal causation
Groups like ANR say the casino industry’s narrative about profit declines is false. Nearly half the states with legalized gambling, 160 tribal casinos, and more than 1,100 U.S. casinos prohibit indoor smoking.
Specifically, anti-smoking advocates point to Atlantic City casinos and the recent COVID-related smoking ban. In the first quarter of 2021 (no smoking), AC casino profits increased nearly 11% over pre-pandemic 2019 (smoking allowed).
However, that may not be as strong an argument as the anti-smoking groups believe.
Atlantic City casino profits were up in 2021 due to triple-digit percentage increases in online gaming and sports betting. The casinos also had massive cuts to labor and promotional spending. NJ land-based casino revenue, business volumes, and all other quantifiable industry metrics were down considerably in the early part of 2021 compared to 2019.
Dealers support smoke-free workplaces
Between March 16, 2020, and July 4, 2021, smoking inside Atlantic City casinos was temporarily banned because of COVID-19. The ban was lifted when New Jersey rolled back most pandemic restrictions.
“That pissed me off,” said Lamont White, an AC casino dealer and CEASE member. “I couldn’t believe that after a year of fresh air, the smoke was coming back.”
Nicole Vitola, CEASE member and AC dealer, said the casinos are putting “profit over health.”
“When I speak about the blatant disregard for our well-being, I’m not just doing this for myself. I’m doing this for every casino employee who can’t speak up themselves or are afraid they’ll lose their job.”
‘Unreasonable choice’ for workers at Atlantic City casinos
Atlantic City casino dealer and CEASE member Pete Naccarelli (pictured, right) said even some supervisors and upper management support a smoking ban. But, they are hesitant to speak out against the status quo, he said.
“We get the feeling that a lot of people are behind us, not against us,” Naccarelli said.
Hallet, the ANR executive, said casino workers are being forced to make an “unreasonable choice…between their health and a paycheck.”
“Second-hand smoke is more than a nuisance,” she said. “It is a health hazard and businesses are obligated to remove known, preventable causes of disease and disability.”
Will Trenton move to make Atlantic City casinos smoke-free?
A handful of New Jersey legislators want to remove the loophole in state law which allows AC casinos to permit indoor smoking. None of the bill’s current sponsors represent districts in southern New Jersey.
Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat running for reelection, supports banning smoking inside Atlantic City casinos.
“You should assume that I will sign it,” Murphy said in September about the casino smoking ban bill.
Atlantic City’s governing body supports the state Senate’s casino smoking ban bill. A local ordinance permits smoking inside Atlantic City casinos on no more than 25% of the gaming floor.
Lead image: AP Photo/Wayne Parry