Proponents of an effort to snuff out smoking inside Atlantic City casinos are getting an early holiday gift from New Jersey lawmakers.
A Senate health committee hearing scheduled for Thursday includes a bill to eliminate the Atlantic City casino exemption in the state’s indoor smoking ban law. Lawmakers on the nine-member Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee are expected to vote on the bill.
The State Legislature is currently in a lame-duck session, a post-election period when unpopular or controversial bills get pushed through since many lawmakers no longer have to answer to the electorate or special interest groups.
Is the fight over smoking in Atlantic City casinos coming to an end?
The proposal to ban smoking in Atlantic City casinos is undoubtedly controversial. And it has been since NJ passed the Smoke-Free Air Act in 2006.
Some casino workers, most notably table games dealers and cocktail servers, say the smoky environment forces them to choose between their health and a paycheck. Casino executives contend that eliminating smoking — which is only permitted on 25% of the gaming floor — will drive away coveted customers, leading to a decline in business that would hurt state tax collections and cost thousands of local jobs.
Up until recently, efforts to ban smoking in Atlantic City casinos had only been gaining momentum. Companion bills in both the state Senate and Assembly had a combined 83 sponsors or co-sponsors, representing more than two-thirds of the State Legislature.
AC casinos say job losses are inevitable if smoking ban passes
However, following a hearing last month where South Jersey business organizations and AC casinos laid out their economic concerns, several lawmakers are reconsidering their support. One of those lawmakers is state Sen. Fred Madden, D-Camden/Gloucester, who is vice-chair of the health committee.
Madden told the Associated Press that he felt “extremely confident that people will lose their jobs” under a total smoking ban.
The Atlantic City casino industry says as many as 2,500 jobs could be lost as a direct result of declining business from a smoking ban.
The casino industry in Atlantic City never fully recovered from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting business restrictions. In-person gambling revenue for six of the city’s nine casinos is still below pre-pandemic levels. Operating profitability for all but the top tier of the market is trending downward, even as online casinos in NJ and mobile sportsbooks in NJ continue to grow.
Non-smoking casinos are doing just fine, advocates say
Proponents of the indoor smoking ban say the casino industry’s fears are overblown. They often point to successful non-smoking casinos in nearby New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland.
MGM National Harbor, just outside Washington DC, was the highest-grossing casino outside Las Vegas in 2022 and is a completely smoke-free property.
Non-smoking Parx Casino in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, is the Keystone State’s largest and most profitable gambling parlor. Smoking is permitted inside Pennsylvania casinos, but Parx voluntarily decided to remain non-smoking after the pandemic.
North Jersey politicians know South Jersey better than those who live there
Staunch smoking opponents in Trenton are also not buying the casinos’ argument.
At November’s Senate Health committee hearing, Sen. Dick Codey, D-Essex, told the president of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber that “the world will not collapse” if people cannot smoke inside Atlantic City casinos.
Health committee Chairman Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, went a step further with his dismissal of local concerns, responding to a plea from the GACC president for an “amenable solution” by saying he would “buy ashtrays for the Boardwalk.”
The current legislative session will formally adjourn on Jan. 9, 2024. That gives lawmakers less than a month to get the bill(s) through both chambers.
Gov. Phil Murphy has stated that he will sign the bill if it passes.