No Ruling On Atlantic City Smoking Ban Lawsuit After Judge Hears Opposing Arguments

Written By David Danzis on May 14, 2024
Woman smokes while gambling in Atlantic City for a story on the first hearing of a lawsuit challenging the legality of allowing smoking in Atlantic City casinos.

The battle to ban smoking inside Atlantic City casinos moved to a New Jersey courtroom this week, where a coalition of employees and anti-smoking advocates asked a judge to close a legal loophole in state law carved out for the gambling parlors.

A group of employees are suing the state over alleged violations of worker protections, saying that casino floors are “toxic” environments due to smoking. The state is arguing that a smoking ban will put Atlantic City casinos at a disadvantage, which could ultimately lead to job losses and reduced tax collections.

Superior Court Judge Patrick Bartels did not issue a decision after hearing opening arguments on Monday but said he intends to “as quickly as possible.”

What’s at stake with Atlantic City casino smoking ban?

A ruling in favor of instituting a complete smoking ban could be a turning point for the Atlantic City casino industry, which has yet to fully recover from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Land-based gambling revenue is stagnant for all but a few AC casinos, a stark contrast to the record-setting growth being reported by commercial and tribal gaming entities around the country over the same period.

Casino workers seeking to end indoor smoking say this is not a financial debate, although some frontline workers contend a ban would actually increase business. Instead, they say this fight is about their health and their right to work in the same smoke-free environment everyone else in NJ is guaranteed under the law.

What happens in AC could have ripple effect elsewhere

The significance of the anti-smoking showdown in Atlantic City casinos is hard to understate. As the country’s second-largest gambling market and the first place outside of Nevada to legalize casinos, what happens in AC will have a ripple effect across the country.

The local grassroots effort to ban smoking in casinos started in AC in 2021, when workers formed C.E.A.S.E. – the Casino Employees Against Smoking Harmful’s Effects – in response to NJ allowing indoor smoking to resume after a year of prohibiting the practice in the name of a public health emergency.

Following AC’s lead, casino workers in other states like Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Kansas and Virginia began advocating for anti-smoking measures due to health concerns from secondhand smoke exposure.

Lawsuit seeks to end ‘special law’ allowing smoking in AC casinos

Last month, C.E.A.S.E. and the United Auto Workers union, representing table games dealers at Bally’s Atlantic City, Caesars Atlantic City and Tropicana Atlantic City, filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the 2006 NJ Smoke-Free Air Act, which exempts casinos from a ban applicable to most workplaces.

Presently, smoking is capped to no more than 25% of the casino floor in Atlantic City due to a local ordinance. However, these areas are not contiguous, leading to varying levels of secondhand smoke exposure throughout the premises.

The groups’ three-count suit accuses the state 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.

Nancy Erika Smith, the attorney representing UAW and C.E.A.S.E, argued that the law’s purpose should be public health, not casino profits, emphasizing the workers’ right to a safe environment.

“We are seeking to end a special law which does a favor for casinos and seriously harms workers,” she said.

Job losses on the table with smoking ban

Deputy Attorney General Robert McGuire, representing Gov. Phil Murphy and the state’s acting health commissioner, countered that safety and happiness pursuits are freedoms, not constitutional rights.

He highlighted the state’s Casino Revenue Fund, funded by an 8% tax on land-based casino revenue, supports programs for seniors and people with disabilities throughout New Jersey. In fiscal year 2024, McGuire said, $526 million from CRF will be spent on such programs.

UNITE Here Local 54, the largest AC casino worker union representing close to 10,000 employees, is siding with the state of NJ, citing the potential for job losses due to declines in business. Local 54 estimates that as many as one-third of its membership could be in jeopardy of losing their jobs if a smoking ban is enacted.

“That has a net effect on the health of New Jersey citizens, because those families that lose their jobs may not be able to pay for food, and therefore it affects their health,” McGuire said Monday.

Attorney Christopher Porrino, representing the Casino Association of New Jersey, said the State Legislature has historically opted not to alter Atlantic City’s smoking policy.

“In a few weeks it will be 46 years since the first casino opened in Atlantic City. From that day forward and every day since, patrons of casinos have continuously smoked.”

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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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