The news coming out of Trenton as it relates to ending smoking inside Atlantic City casinos is old hat. The soundbites and quotes from the parties involved are becoming so cliché and worn that it has started to feel like we are all living in a bad remake of Groundhog Day.
On Jan. 29, lawmakers in the New Jersey Senate health committee will consider a bill to eliminate the casino smoking loophole in the state’s clean air law. The very same committee failed to take meaningful action on a nearly identical bill in December 2023 after holding several high-profile hearings in which busloads of front-line AC casino workers took time off work to attend.
If the 2024 bill makes it out of the Senate committee next week, it will almost certainly land in front of the budget committee for review. The General Assembly still needs to consider either the Senate version or a companion bill before the proposal goes up for a vote before the entire State Legislature.
Should state lawmakers vote to end smoking inside Atlantic City casinos, the bill goes to the desk of Gov. Phil Murphy for final approval. Murphy has publicly stated he would sign the bill into law.
The Atlantic City casino industry is against an outright ban, citing economic concerns. The scuttlebutt in AC is that the industry would be “more receptive” to a NJ smoking ban if Pennsylvania casinos followed suit.
Here we go again: Atlantic City casino smoking ban takes front and center
But all of this has been said — over and over and over — before. The déjà vu would drive Phil Connors (Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day) mad.
The entire saga has left anti-smoking advocates disappointed in a political process that has allowed indoor smoking at AC’s gambling parlors to go mostly unabated for more than 17 years after NJ outlawed indoor smoking everywhere else (with a handful of exceptions).
It certainly didn’t help when, last month, it appeared a bill was making traction, only to get pulled at the last minute due to a lack of support.
The NJ Smoke-Free Air Act went into effect on April 15, 2006. The law banned indoor smoking everywhere in the state except AC casinos and a handful of grandfathered businesses, such as cigar lounges and social clubs.
An Atlantic City municipal ordinance limiting indoor smoking to no more than 25% of casino floors is the only guardrail in place.
Pandemic proved casinos can survive smoking ban
Part of the larger frustration for groups such as Casino Workers Against Smoking’s (Harmful) Effects, or C.E.A.S.E., and the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation is that Atlantic City casinos have gone non-smoking before.
The most recent time AC casinos went nonsmoking was during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The state shut down the casino industry in March 2020, and the nine properties remained closed until July.
When they reopened, an emergency order from the governor and the state Health Department prohibited indoor smoking.
All nine AC casinos immediately permitted indoor smoking again when the emergency order expired on July 3, 2021.
2008 AC casino smoking ban goes up in smoke
The only other time smoking was snuffed out inside all AC casinos was during a 32-day stretch in 2008.
In April 2008, former AC Mayor and current Fire Chief Scott Evans signed a city ordinance requiring 100% smoke-free casino floors.
The order was set to go into effect Oct. 15, 2008.
However, the months between when Evans signed the ordinance and its intended start date coincided with the early stages of the Great Recession. Gamblers stayed closer to home as the economic news worsened. Connecticut’s tribal casinos and slot parlors in Pennsylvania and New York were chipping away at Atlantic City, and it was beginning to show in the industry data.
Casino executives and local politicians started sounding the alarm leading up to the implementation of the smoking ban. City Council considered delaying the ban about a week before it was set to begin but ultimately decided to let the order stand.
On Oct. 27, 2008, City Council and Evans changed course and ordered the smoking ban suspended. The casino industry said the not-yet-two-week-old smoking ban was causing too much economic harm.
On Nov. 16, 2008, smoking resumed inside Atlantic City casinos.
Always do the opposite of whatever Revel did
The only other notable instance of an attempt at prohibiting smoking in AC is the Revel Casino Hotel. The $2.4 billion Boardwalk casino opened in 2012 as a 100% smoke-free property.
The Great Recession also played a part in Revel’s troubles, as a second hotel tower included in the original design was never completed because the project required millions in taxpayer-backed funding.
Nonetheless, Revel closed in 2014. Among the litany of reasons behind its failure was the casino’s non-smoking policy.
The property reopened in June 2018 as the Ocean Casino Resort (technically, it was Ocean Resort Casino, but they flip-flopped the second and third words in 2019). Today, Ocean is AC’s third-highest-grossing casino property in terms of in-person gambling revenue.