Atlantic City: Casino smoking ban advocates find lawmakers’ support at hearing, but issue remains controversial

Atlantic City casino workers pushing for a smoking ban received support from several state lawmakers on Monday at a hearing on a bill that would put an end to indoor smoking at the destination’s nine properties. 

Casino employees testified before a state Senate panel in favor of a law that would close a loophole in the state’s 2006 indoor smoking law, which was written specifically to exempt casinos from the ban. Currently, smoking is permitted on 25% of a casino floor in Atlantic City. 

Even though no action was taken on the bill, numerous lawmakers supported a ban, calling it long overdue, reports Associated Press. Whether to ban smoking is one of the most controversial issues for the gaming industry, as some argue it would lead to revenue loss. Similar campaigns have also started in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Virginia. 

Atlantic City’s main casino workers’ union drove four van loads of workers to the hearing as well, taking 60 of them to the state Capitol as a counterpoint to those calling for a smoking ban. These workers back the industry’s position that a smoking ban would place Atlantic City at a competitive disadvantage with casinos in neighboring states.

Democratic Senator Richard Codey was acting governor in 2006 when the indoor smoking law was adopted. “Unfortunately, to get that passed I had to agree that casinos could still have smoking,” he said this week, adding that “it’s time” for the state to implement a casino smoking ban.

During Monday’s hearing, Senator Joseph Vitale, the committee’s chairperson, described it as “immoral” for the owners of casinos to think their employees are expendable. “If you smell it, it’s in your lungs,” he stated.

Joseph Vitale

The issue is among the most divisive in Atlantic City, where even though casino revenue matched its all-time high of $5.2 billion last year, only half that amount was won from in-person gamblers.

The other half was won online and must be shared with third parties including tech platforms and sports books. Just three of the nine casinos — Borgata, Ocean and Resorts —surpassed their pre-pandemic revenue levels in terms of money won from in-person gamblers last year.

“I am responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of chips,” said Borgata dealer Pete Naccarelli, one of the leaders of the anti-smoking movement in Atlantic City. “When a player 12 inches away blows a cloud of smoke at me, I can’t move, and I’m prohibited from waving the smoke away, a gesture that would be considered rude. We all have people that love us. We don’t think it’s fair that we should have to choose between a paycheck and our health.”

However, Bob McDevitt, president of Local 54 of the Unite Here casino workers union, opposes a smoking ban, saying he wants to preserve the jobs of his members. “I would bet everything I have that one year after a smoking ban, we will have a 10 to 15% decline in gambling revenue. Of that I am certain,” he stated. “As soon as we did it, Pennsylvania would double down on smoking. It would close one, maybe two casinos in Atlantic City.”

Bob McDevitt

Cynthia Hallett, president of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, said union management does not speak for the majority of its members on a smoking ban, and said the casino industry keeps saying it is the wrong time for such a measure.

For its part, the Casino Association of New Jersey submitted written testimony opposing a smoking ban, stating it would jeopardize thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue dedicated to seniors and the disabled of New Jersey. 

Support for a smoking ban is widespread among New Jersey lawmakers: identical smoking ban bills are sponsored or co-sponsored by 51 Assembly members and 23 state Senators, representing a bipartisan majority in both chambers.

The bill needs to be voted upon in committees of the Senate and Assembly, then voted on by the full membership of those legislative bodies before going to the governor. Those hearings and votes have not yet been scheduled. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has promised to sign the bill if passes the Legislature.