Atlantic City casinos may soon be smoke-free after years of debate

A bill to ban smoking in casinos advances in the Senate

A long-awaited bill that would prohibit smoking in Atlantic City’s nine casinos has moved forward in the New Jersey Legislature, after being stalled for three years. The bill was approved by the Senate health committee on Monday, January 29, 2024, with a 6-3 vote. The bill still needs to pass the full Senate, the Assembly, and the governor’s approval before becoming law.

The bill would end the exemption that casinos have enjoyed since 2006, when New Jersey banned smoking in most indoor public places, such as restaurants, bars, and workplaces. Currently, casinos are allowed to designate up to 25% of their gaming floor as smoking areas, but the bill would eliminate that option and require casinos to be completely smoke-free.

Atlantic City casinos
Atlantic City casinos

The bill’s sponsors, Senators Shirley Turner and Joseph Vitale, both Democrats, said that the bill was a matter of public health and workers’ rights, as casino employees are exposed to secondhand smoke and its harmful effects. They cited studies that show that smoking increases the risk of lung cancer, heart disease, stroke, and COVID-19 complications. They also argued that the bill would not hurt the casino industry, as most gamblers are non-smokers and prefer a smoke-free environment.

Casino workers and anti-smoking advocates celebrate the vote

The bill’s advancement was celebrated by many casino workers and anti-smoking advocates, who have been campaigning for a smoking ban for years. They said that they were tired and sick of breathing in smoke at their workplace, and that they deserved a healthy and safe working condition. They also said that the COVID-19 pandemic had shown the importance of protecting the respiratory health of casino workers and patrons.

Some of the supporters of the bill who attended the hearing included Nicola Vitola, a dealer at Borgata and a leader of the movement to ban casino smoking; Cynthia Hallett, the president and CEO of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights; and Lamont White, a former casino worker who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. They said that they were hopeful that the bill would finally become law this time, after being rejected three times in the past.

Casino industry and business group oppose the bill

The bill’s advancement was opposed by the casino industry and a prominent business group, who warned that the bill would be an economic disaster for Atlantic City and the southern New Jersey region. They said that the bill would drive away smokers and high-rollers, who account for a significant portion of the casino revenue and jobs. They also said that the bill would put Atlantic City at a competitive disadvantage, as casinos in neighboring states, such as Pennsylvania, still allow smoking.

Some of the opponents of the bill who testified at the hearing included Christina Renna, the president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey; Donna DeCaprio, the president of Local 54 of the Unite Here union, which represents bartenders, cocktail servers, room cleaners, and others; and Steve Callender, the president of the Casino Association of New Jersey. They said that they supported the health of casino workers and customers, but that they preferred a voluntary and gradual approach to reducing smoking in casinos, rather than a mandatory and immediate ban.

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