A new crop of New Jersey lawmakers was sworn in this week, and one of the legislature’s preeminent issues will be what to do about smoking inside Atlantic City casinos.
With public sentiment and a majority of state lawmakers on their side, anti-smoking advocates are looking at 2024 as the year Trenton finally passes a bill to close the casino loophole.
New year, same (smoking) story in Atlantic City casinos
So, what will it take for NJ to completely eliminate smoking inside Atlantic City casinos?
Here’s the most straightforward way: The State Legislature passes a bill and the governor signs it into law.
On the first day of the new legislative session, the state Senate and Assembly introduced companion bills to eliminate smoking. The Senate version is back in the health committee with its chairman as a prime sponsor of the legislation.
However, the gambling industry showed its potent political influence at the end of last year and is unlikely to capitulate anytime soon.
Lingering concerns among industry executives about losing gamblers to nearby smoking casinos in Pennsylvania are as prevalent today as they were in 2006 when NJ passed the Smoke-Free Air Act. The measure prohibited indoor smoking everywhere except casinos and a handful of grandfathered businesses throughout the state.
Pinning smoking ban hopes on PA will only lead to disappointment
One of the lesser-discussed tactics to enact a smoking ban in Atlantic City involves Pennsylvania.
Some industry insiders believe — and PlayNJ has confirmed with multiple sources — that most AC casino operators would be “significantly less resistant” to a smoking ban if the Keystone State also outlawed the practice.
The thinking goes that if New Jersey and Pennsylvania do it simultaneously, neither jurisdiction gains a competitive advantage as it negates any potential business declines from a smokers’ exodus.
That is the preferred method for most AC casino operators if a smoking ban is going to happen, sources told PlayNJ. It is also the least likely to occur since PA lawmakers are not under the same pressure as their counterparts in Jersey.
Take those smoking studies with a grain of salt … please
Conflicting studies released in recent years either support or refute the industry’s claims.
One study, commissioned by the Casino Association of New Jersey, was conducted by Spectrum Gaming Group, one of the country’s foremost industry consulting firms for over two decades. The Spectrum study used AC-specific data (some more than a decade old) to conclude that a decline in business would be all but inevitable if a smoking ban were enacted.
Anti-smoking proponents point to a 2022 study conducted by C3 Gaming, a little-known boutique firm that analyzed the performance of non-smoking casinos versus smoking casinos. C3 Gaming’s research relied heavily on pandemic and post-pandemic data to conclude that revenue and job losses in AC would not be as drastic as previously suggested.
Most industry experts and analysts take both research sets with a grain of salt. The Spectrum study has an obvious bias, having been paid for by the casinos. At the same time, the C3 report is limited in scope and contains several minor factual inaccuracies (such as the name of the law outlawing indoor smoking in NJ).
Compromise is a dirty word, but ashtrays are dirtier
Questionable conclusions aside, the reports highlight how far apart the two sides actually are.
The casino industry, with the help of at least one local lawmaker, continues to push for a compromise of sorts. The industry and Sen. Vince Polistina, R-Atlantic, are proposing unmanned smoking rooms with electronic table games and slot machines.
Most AC casinos used to have smoking rooms but phased them out years ago. Bally’s Atlantic City still has them on the sixth floor outside the elevator banks.
Anti-smoking advocates, including some casino employees, remain adamantly opposed to compromising. Groups such as Casino Employees Against Smoking’s Harmful Effects (C.E.A.S.E.) say they will not be forced to choose between their health and a paycheck.
During testimony on the merits of a smoking ban, some AC casino employees chastised the state’s casino loophole that allows smoking on up to 25% of a casino floor. They say the measure is ineffective since it is never enforced, and non-smoking areas are not protected smoking-permissible areas.