Expected Vote On Smoking Ban In Atlantic City Casinos Put On Hold Until December

Written By David Danzis on December 1, 2023
woman smoking at slot machine at atlantic city casino

Anti-smoking advocates were left shocked and dismayed Thursday after a New Jersey Senate committee hearing concluded without voting to ban smoking inside Atlantic City casinos.

After more than 90 minutes of testimony on a bill to completely eliminate smoking in Atlantic City casinos, the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee did not vote on S264.

New Jersey’s own ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’ moment

Heading into Thursday’s hearing, it was widely expected that the Senate Health Committee would vote on — and easily pass — the smoking ban proposal.

More than two-thirds (83) of the 120 state lawmakers are sponsors or co-sponsors of the Senate (S264) and Assembly (A2151) bills to end smoking inside Atlantic City’s nine gambling parlors.

But, committee Chairman Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, took all the oxygen out of the packed conference room in Trenton when he announced there was not enough support among the members who were present to vote on the bill.

Vitale said the bill would be heard and voted on in December.

Atlantic City casinos respond to Senate hearing

Atlantic City casinos are pushing for amendments to the bills – such as unmanned, enclosed smoking areas with slot machines and electronic table games.

Following the hearing, the Casino Association of New Jersey released a statement saying, in part, that it wanted “to find a compromise that will address the concerns of our employees without jeopardizing jobs and benefits to some of our most vulnerable citizens.”

“For the first time, people are beginning to realize that the bill, as drafted, will have a significant adverse effect on Atlantic City’s economy,” Mark Giannantonio, president of the CANJ and CEO/president of Resorts Casino Hotel, said in the statement.

“A broad coalition of stakeholders — workers, seniors, people with disabilities, civil rights organizations, labor, business, community leaders, and a number of legislators — oppose this legislation, recognizing that it will hurt working-class people, endanger thousands of jobs and jeopardize the millions of dollars in tax revenue dedicated to New Jersey’s seniors and people with disabilities.”

Giannantonio then added:

“The casino industry will continue to work with stakeholders on a compromise that supports the betterment of the city, the tourism and gaming industries and the collective interest of the entire Atlantic City workforce.”

Anti-smoking groups are fuming mad after Thursday’s charade

The delay is a setback for anti-smoking advocates, who had hoped the legislature’s lame-duck session would yield a favorable result for their cause. The current legislative session ends in January, and only a handful of scheduled days are left for lawmakers to meet in Trenton.

A group of Atlantic City casino workers known as C.E.A.S.E. (Casino Employees Against Smoking’s Harmful Effects) were joined by representatives from the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, United Auto Workers (a local chapter represents table games dealers at a handful of AC casinos) and Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights in supporting the bill. Representatives of C.E.A.S.E. delivered passionate testimony, telling lawmakers how the smoke in casinos forces them to “choose between their health and a paycheck.”

ANR, a non-profit organization that has rallied around the casino smoking ban in NJ, also put out a press release after the hearing. Cynthia Hallett, president and CEO of ANR, issued the following statement:

“Casinos and their lobbyists waited until the last minute to engage in this discussion, and legislators clearly need more time to understand the repercussions of dangerous amendments they are unveiling at the 11th hour that would hurt the most vulnerable casino workers. We are confident that as these consequences are made clear in the coming days, especially of Philip Morris smoking rooms, legislators will vote to finally close the casino smoking loophole and protect every worker’s health.

“The scare tactics from casinos are tired and no longer apply in a post-COVID world. There is no compromising on workers’s health and we are confident legislators will get the job done during lame-duck.”

AC casino workers call out AC casinos

Smoking is permitted on up to 25% of the gaming floors in Atlantic City casinos, thanks to an exemption in the 2006 Smoke-Free Air Act.

Lamont White, a table games at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa and C.E.A.S.E. co-founder, told the committee that the casinos ignore the 25% allowance because there is no enforcement of the rule.

“You would think 75/25 means that 25% of the room is smoking and the other 75% of the room is non-smoking. But it’s not,” White said. “You get three tables over here that are smoking and then you get three tables 10 feet away from them that are non-smoking.

“The casinos can do whatever they want to do…and nobody checks on it. There are no checks and balances at all.”

Concerns remain that ban would drive away patrons

The CANJ, Unite Here Local 54 (the largest AC casino workers’ union), the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce and the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey oppose the bill.

Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small Sr. testified against the proposal as well. Small said any negative economic impact on AC casinos will hurt the city itself, particularly if there are local job losses.

The casino industry and the business organizations are concerned that a smoking ban would drive away coveted clientele, which could eventually lead to declines in business and labor reductions. Industry executives say smoking sections generate more revenue than non-smoking areas.

An industry-funded study produced by Spectrum Gaming Group in 2022 estimated that 21% of Atlantic City casino players are smokers. Spectrum estimated that gross gaming revenue would decline by at least 4% in the first year of a smoking ban while non-gaming revenue (hotel, food and beverage, entertainment, retail) would drop by at least 3%.

Ultimately, the Atlantic City casino industry says as many as 2,500 jobs could be lost.

Small referenced a citywide labor peace following the most recent casino union contracts, which resulted in the most significant pay increase in history for more than half the industry’s workforce. Casino job losses among residents could have a ripple effect on AC’s precarious economic position, which the state has spent the better part of a decade trying to correct.

“To upset that applecart (with a casino smoking ban) will be detrimental to (Atlantic City’s) finances and where we’re going as a city. And I just want to put that on record,” Small said.

North Jersey dismisses Atlantic City – again

Vitale and other committee members dismissed those concerns, citing the growing number of states with non-smoking gaming facilities, a declining overall percentage of smokers nationwide and comparisons to the “fearmongering” of restaurants and bars when NJ went non-smoking over 15 years ago.

State Sen. Dick Codey, D-Essex, was acting governor when the Smoke-Free Air Act was being debated. He waived off any talk of declining business, telling the president of the GACC that the “world will not collapse” if smoking inside casinos is done away with.

Point(s) of reference

Anti-smoking advocates point to the success of Parx Casino in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, as an example of a smoke-free property that is thriving. Pennsylvania allows smoking inside casinos, but Parx elected to remain smoke-free in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parx is the top revenue-generating casino in PA. It also has the largest gaming floor of any casino in the Keystone State, according to PlayPennsylvania. The gaming floor at Parx Casino is bigger than every gambling floor in Atlantic City, with the exception of Borgata.

The country’s top revenue-generating casino, MGM National Harbor in Maryland, does not allow smoking. Neither do casinos in neighboring Delaware and New York.

Photo by Wayne Parry / 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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