Atlantic City Casinos Smoking Ban Bill OK’d By NJ Senate Health Committee

Written By David Danzis on January 29, 2024 - Last Updated on January 31, 2024
Woman plays slots while smoking for a story on the New Jersey Senate health committee discusses banning smoking at Atlantic City casinos

Atlantic City casinos are one step closer to becoming 100% smoke free.

For real this time.

On Monday, the New Jersey Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee voted in favor of S1493, which would eliminate smoking inside Atlantic City casinos. The bill now moves to another Senate committee — likely Budget & Appropriations — for a second reading.

The committee’s vote signifies the first major step on a proposal to eliminate the so-called casino loophole in the state’s 2006 Smoke-Free Air Act. A nearly identical legislative proposal stalled in the same committee in 2023, despite the bill having the support of nearly two-thirds of the State Legislature.

The smoking ban would go into effect 90 days after the governor signs the bill into law, according to an amendment approved Monday.

Gov. Phil Murphy has indicated he would sign a law closing the casino smoking loophole if the State Legislature approves a bill.

Days of smoking in Atlantic City casinos appear numbered

Anti-smoking advocates celebrated the Senate committee’s actions on Monday.

“After more than 17 years since New Jersey enacted the state’s first clean air act, we’re thrilled that lawmakers today voted to end indoor smoking in Atlantic City casinos and protect the lives of thousands of casino workers,” Cynthia Hallett, president and CEO of Americans For Nonsmokers’ Rights, said in a press release following the vote.

Hallett testified alongside Nicole Vitola, a table games dealer at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa and co-founder of Casino Employees Against Smoking’s (Harmful) Effects, or C.E.A.S.E., in front of the Senate health committee on Monday. The two anti-smoking advocates were among a handful of invite-only witnesses asked to speak, according to Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, chairman of the Senate health committee.

Vitola, who has testified multiple times in favor of closing the casino loophole, said she’s been dealing cards for nearly 27 years, including while she was pregnant.

“As you know we have been fighting to close the casinos smoking loophole in Atlantic City casinos for years,” she says. “It is clear to me that after fighting tirelessly for years, the only way the casinos will ever do the right thing is for them to be forced to protect their employees by law.”

Union head says smoking ban would cause ‘economic catastrophe’ for Atlantic City, county and NJ

Atlantic City casinos have long contended that a smoking ban would adversely impact their business, particularly if nearby Pennsylvania casinos are still allowing people to smoke inside. While NJ’s gross gaming revenue set a new annual record in 2023, two-thirds of Atlantic City casinos are not meeting pre-pandemic performance levels.

UNITE Here Local 54 President Donna DeCaprio spoke against the smoking ban, arguing that union jobs could be lost. Local 54 is the largest AC casino workers’ union, representing nearly half of the industry’s 22,000 employees.

“This issue is a very nuanced complex issue,” she said Monday. “We are not pro-smoking by any means. And we agree that there needs to be improvements and changes to the current situation. But it needs to be done in a thoughtful way. A total ban is going to result in an economic catastrophe for Atlantic City, Atlantic County and the state.”

Vitale, a prime sponsor of the bill to end smoking inside AC casinos, dismissed the union’s labor concerns, as well as those raised by Christina Renna, the president of the Chamber of Commerce of Southern New Jersey. Renna noted that, based on data from state gaming regulators, more than 99.5% of AC casino workers live in the state’s eight southernmost counties. She then pointed out that none of the senators on the committee represented anyone in those counties.

“I think that’s a real disservice to this conversation,” Renna said. “The smoking ban is a statewide issue, without question, but it has a unique impact on the South Jersey region.”

North Jersey lawmakers continue to show how little they understand South Jersey, Atlantic City casinos

Vitale and other anti-smoking proponents point to a 2022 report published by Las Vegas-based C3 Gaming which shows that non-smoking casinos perform as well as or better than their non-smoking counterparts, particularly in the post-COVID era.

MGM National Harbor is the highest-grossing US casino outside Nevada and is 100% smoke-free. Casinos in nearby Deleware, Connecticut and New York are also smoke-free facilities.

C3G’s conclusions are in contrast to a report published by Spectrum Gaming Group — and paid for by the Casino Association of New Jersey — which suggested an immediate and long-term impact on business in Atlantic City.

Vitale displayed a lack of institutional knowledge of the casino gaming industry by implying Spectrum’s report was not credible given its inherent conflict and “predetermined outcome.” Spectrum has over 30 years of experience and is among the most respected consulting firms in the gaming industry, both domestically and internationally. The company’s founder worked for the NJ Division of Gaming Enforcement and in the Office of the Attorney General.

Spectrum used data provided by the casinos, such as average daily spending, customer spending profiles and casino floor section performance breakdowns, to support their findings.

Nonetheless, Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer and co-sponsor of the bill to ban smoking inside AC casinos, followed Vitale’s lead. Turner, a veteran lawmaker, asked one of the witnesses how casinos would know smokers spend more than non-smokers, apparently unaware that casinos keep more data on their customers than the government does.

Play-by-play of Monday’s hearing

PlayNJ listened to a live stream of Monday’s hearings. The following is a real-time blog with updates of the day’s proceedings.

UPDATE: 12:50 p.m. EST

Anti-smoking advocates are in Trenton to support efforts to eliminate smoking inside AC casinos. Groups, such as Casino Employees Against Smoking’s (Harmful) Effects, or C.E.A.S.E., and the local chapter of the United Auto Workers Union (UAW Region 9) are part of the demonstration outside and inside the State Annex building today. The UAW represents table games dealers at three AC casinos — Bally’s AC, Caesars AC, and Tropicana AC.

UPDATE: 1:15 p.m. EST

NJ Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee has not yet begun its live stream on the NJ Legislature’s official website. The eight-member committee hearing was scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. The committee’s agenda only has five items, with one fo them being labeled as “Discussion Only.” S1493 could be voted on today.

UPDATE: 1:20 p.m. EST

The hearing has started. Senate Health Committee Chairman Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, said S1493 would be the final item dealt with today. Vitale is a prime sponsor of the bill to end smoking inside AC’s nine casinos.

UPDATE: 1:45 p.m. EST

Vitale says the only testimony that will be heard today on S1493 is by “invitation only.” The hearings commence with Nicole Vitola, a table games dealer at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa and co-founder of C.E.A.S.E. American For Nonsmokers’ Rights President and CEO Cynthia Hallett will testify next.

UPDATE: 2:00 p.m. EST

Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey President and CEO Christina Renna and Donna DeCaprio, president of UNITE Here Local 54, are scheduled to testify next. Local 54 is the largest AC casino workers’ union, representing nearly half of all casino employees in the resort. Both the CCSNJ and Local 54 oppose a smoking ban inside Atlantic City casinos based on economic and labor-level concerns.

Renna is the first person in any of the public hearings on the smoking ban to point out that none of the Senate health committee members represent South Jersey, Atlantic County or Atlantic City.

UPDATE: 2:20 p.m. EST

Vitale and Renna are verbally sparring over AC casino smoking ban. The senator cites a report from C3Gaming as evidence that non-smoking casinos will thrive. The firm’s report found that non-smoking casinos performed as well as, or better in certain instances, than their smoking counterparts, particularly in the post-COVID era. C3 is a Las Vegas-based firm founded in 2021.

Vitale, simultaneously, dismisses a report from Spectrum Gaming Group, which was paid for by the Casino Association of New Jersey, that predicts a decline in revenue and profits for AC casinos if a smoking ban is enacted, which would lead to employment reductions in the industry. Spectrum has over 30 years of experience and is, arguably, the most respected gaming industry consulting firm in the country. Its founder is a former employee of the NJ Office of the Attorney General and NJ Division of Gaming Enforcement. Spectrum’s report concluded that as many as 3,000 AC casino jobs could be eliminated if the smoking ban causes even marginal financial losses.

UPDATE: 2:50 p.m. EST

The Senate health committee votes to release S1493. The bill was slightly amended to say that it would go into effect 90 days after being signed into law rather than immediately go into effect, as was originally written.

The bill will now head to the Senate Budget & Appropriations Committee for a second reading. The Office of Legislative Services will also issue a bipartisan fiscal estimate of the proposed legislation.

Photo by Cie Stroud / AP Photo
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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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