A stirring scene played out in Trenton on Thursday morning as dozens of workers and advocates crowded a legislative committee room to urge New Jersey lawmakers to eliminate smoking inside Atlantic City casinos.
Casino employees delivered compelling testimony about personal health issues and detrimental work environments during the two-and-half-hour public hearing. While no action was taken Thursday, nearly every lawmaker in attendance indicated strong support for a smoking ban in AC casinos.
Assemblyman Don Guardian, D-Atlantic, the former mayor of Atlantic City, delivered a blunt rebuke to those opposed to eliminating the casino smoking loophole.
“I don’t want to take away your right to kill yourself by smoking,” he said. “I do want to take away your right to kill someone else by smoking in a casino.”
Atlantic City casino workers dealing with smoke
Nicole Vitola, a Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa dealer and co-founder of Casino Employees Against Smoking’s Effects (C.E.A.S.E.), said she worked smoke-filled table games while pregnant. Tropicana Atlantic City craps dealer Holly Diebler is undergoing chemotherapy for throat cancer. Tammy Brady, a 40-year casino worker, told the committees she is battling breast cancer.
“While I’m not sure we will never know the exact cause of my illness, I can’t help but wonder if it would not have happened if I had not worked in the casinos,” Brady said. “Or even better yet, if the casinos didn’t force me to breathe in secondhand smoke every day.”
Smoking ban will cause ‘devastating’ effect to AC, South Jersey, casinos say
Outnumbered labor union employees and South Jersey business organizations pushed back, arguing a total smoking ban inside AC’s nine casinos would cause irreparable harm to the industry, city and region.
Bob McDevitt, president of Unite Here Local 54, the largest casino workers’ union in AC, testified that a smoking ban could cause a double-digit reduction in the market’s gaming revenue. Local 54 represents close to 10,000 Atlantic City casino employees.
“If this bill passes, then one casino will close,” he said. “And that will be between 2,500 and 3,000 people (who) will be out of jobs.”
The Casino Association of New Jersey, the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce, the Chamber of Commerce of Southern New Jersey, the New Jersey Association of Area Agencies on Aging (casino revenue funds state-run senior programs) and Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small Sr. all oppose the smoking ban.
The CANJ estimates that 20 to 25% of casino revenue could be lost. The industry lobbying group submitted the following statement:
“The Atlantic City casino industry is still very much in a rebuilding and recovery phase from where it was at the start of the pandemic. Visitation to Atlantic City is near a 20-year low, while gas and toll prices are increasing. Adding a smoking ban could cause a devastating effect to the community and state in this difficult economy.”
Camden County official says sky won’t fall in AC
Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, D-Camden, vice chair of the health committee, scoffed at the industry’s position.
“In the 18 years that I’ve been doing this, I’ve heard so many times that if we do something, the world will end,” she said. “If we do something, people won’t come. If we do something, somebody will lose money or lose revenue. I’ve heard it many, many times. And somehow, some way, our industries … have continued to survive and thrive.”
Taxes are always an issue in NJ
James Henry, an Atlantic City resident and casino patron, urged lawmakers to oppose the smoking ban. Understanding that the casinos’ revenue is directly tied to their annual tax payments, Henry expressed concern that a decrease in their revenues would fall on taxpayers to pick up the difference.
“I can’t afford an increase in real-estate taxes. My family, we can’t afford it,” Henry said. “On behalf of the residents of Atlantic City, I ask — do not pass the smoking ban.”
Deja vu in Trenton
The joint session of the state Assembly Health and Tourism, Gaming and the Arts committees was the second such public hearing on an Atlantic City casino smoking ban bill in as many months. The state Senate Health and Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee held a public hearing on the same topic on Feb. 13.
Two identical bills to ban casino smoking are sponsored or co-sponsored by 58 Assembly members (out of 80) and 26 state senators (out of 40). A simple majority in both chambers is needed for legislation to pass. Gov. Phil Murphy has said he will sign the legislation into law.
AC dealers: ‘We deserve to breathe clean air’
Dozens of C.E.A.S.E. members were joined Thursday by representatives from the American Heart Association, American Lung Association, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, NJ Working Families, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Rutgers Center for Tobacco Studies in support of a ban.
The United Auto Workers (UAW) union represents nearly 1,200 casino dealers in Atlantic City. UAW International Representative Patrick Ashton chided the casinos for claiming a smoking ban might cause job losses while online gaming is reducing the city’s brick-and-mortar workforce.
“Our union refuses to sit idle and watch our members pick between their health and their job,” Ashton said. “It is 2023, and we are pleading and begging with you guys to please help us. We deserve to breathe clean air just like everybody else.”
Smoking in Atlantic City casinos
Under current law, AC casinos can permit smoking on up to 25% of the gaming floor.
Atlantic City casinos briefly went non-smoking in 2008 and quickly reversed course. The casinos reported a considerable decline in business during the three-week experiment.
Revel Casino Hotel opened as AC’s only non-smoking property in 2012. It was a bust. The $2.4 billion casino hotel closed less than two years later. Among the many post-mortem reasons for Revel’s failure was its non-smoking policy.
A temporary smoking ban inside Atlantic City casinos was in effect from July 2020 through July 2021 due to state COVID-19 restrictions.