New Jersey Senate Health Committee advances bill to ban smoking in Atlantic City casinos

After three years of limited progress in the push to ban smoking at Atlantic City’s nine casinos, a major development unfolded on Monday as the New Jersey Senate health committee approved a measure aimed at closing the loophole that allows indoor smoking at gambling venues.

This marks a step forward for casino workers who have long advocated for a smoke-free environment, citing health concerns and discomfort due to exposure to secondhand smoke during their work hours.

The vote is the first step of a complex legislative process, with multiple approvals required before the proposed smoking ban can become law. The move follows a sustained effort by casino workers who have championed the cause for four years, expressing their dissatisfaction with the prevailing smoking regulations.

The committee’s decision prompted a heated confrontation among casino workers outside the state Capitol, where supporters and opponents of the smoking ban exchanged impassioned arguments.

The Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey, and Local 54 of the Unite Here union, warned about the potential risks to business of a smoking ban, labeling it as a potential “economic catastrophe.” The statement warned of adverse effects on jobs and revenue, urging a more cautious approach to the proposed legislation.

Meanwhile, casino workers advocating for the ban expressed their elation at the committee’s decision. Nicola Vitola, a Borgata dealer and a leader in the movement to ban casino smoking, stated: “We feel like we cracked the egg.”

The current regulations allow smoking on 25% of the casino floor in Atlantic City, but the lack of contiguous designated spaces results in smoke permeating most areas. The exemption of casinos from New Jersey’s 2006 smoking ban in workplaces has long been a point of contention, leading to persistent efforts for legislative change.

The casino industry has opposed a total smoking ban, proposing alternative measures such as improved ventilation systems and enclosed smoking rooms where employees would not be involuntarily assigned to work. The Casino Association of New Jersey expressed eagerness to find a “meaningful compromise” that addresses employee concerns without jeopardizing jobs.

Republican Senator Vince Polistina has indicated plans to draft a new bill incorporating these proposals, in an effort to strike a balance between health considerations and economic impacts.

The approved bill now proceeds to the full state Senate for a vote. A parallel bill must also navigate the approval process within the Assembly committee and the full chamber before reaching the desk of Governor Phil Murphy, who has previously expressed willingness to sign a smoking ban into law.