New Jersey

Atlantic City casino workers rally for smoking ban amid legislation momentum, industry opposition

Casino workers at Tuesday's rally for a permanent smoking ban in Atlantic City.
Reading time 3:25 min

Atlantic City casino employees pushing for a permanent smoking ban at their workplaces believe this could finally be their opportunity to get things done. Hundreds of casino workers called on state lawmakers Tuesday to ban smoking in gambling venues as part of a massive rally during the anniversary week of the original Smokefree Air Act, which eliminated smoking in all New Jersey workplaces sixteen years ago while specifically exempting casinos and simulcasting facilities.

About 250 workers gathered at McClinton Park at a rally organized by the group Casino Employees Against Smoking’s (Harmful) Effects (C.E.A.S.E.). They argue they have endured years of breathing in second-hand smoke, resulting in negative effects on their health. “Sixteen years ago the state of New Jersey left us behind in the smoke,” said Lamont White, a dealer at the Borgata casino, according to Associated Press. “We are not numbers; we are people.”

The rally is part of an ongoing push for the state to pass a bill to end smoking in casinos, which has been gaining momentum in the legislature; continuing to earn sponsors. Legislation to introduce the ban now has more than 40 sponsors and co-sponsors across the Senate and Assembly, while the tally was 15 during the 2020-2021 legislative session. Additionally, New Jersey’s Democratic governor Phil Murphy has said he would sign the ban should it pass.

Casino workers in New Jersey have long pushed for a permanent ban. While smoking within venues was banned as a Covid-19 transmission-prevention measure in 2020, the prohibition expired in April 2021: employees have since tried to get it reinstated. “Certainly having it gone for a year during the pandemic showed us that it's not going to be the end of the world,” state Sen. Vince Polistina, R-Linwood, said earlier this month.

In March, a report claimed at least one-third of all senators back casino smoking ban legislation, while most members of both the Assembly and Senate health committees are co-sponsors of proposals A2151 and S264. “Legislation to protect casino workers from secondhand smoke has never had this much support,” said Cynthia Hallett, president of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights. But not everyone thinks this would be the best course of action.

The New Jersey casino industry, along with the main casino labor union in Atlantic City, have shown concerns that a permanent ban could lead to widespread job losses and decreased profitability. Additionally, they believe it could cost revenue at a crucial time for the Atlantic City casino industry: venues are not only trying to regain lost business from the pandemic but also seeking to maintain a competitive edge as New York City moves to open additional casinos.

According to a report from research and professional services firm Spectrum Gaming Group, commissioned by the Casino Association of New Jersey (CANJ), the introduction of a permanent smoking ban in Atlantic City casinos could cost up to 2,500 jobs and cause a decline in gaming and tax revenue for the state of New Jersey. “Adding a smoking ban could cause a devastating effect to the community and state,” CANJ president Joe Lupo stated in February.

Casino interests argue that even though certain venues have been able to rebound, the Atlantic City industry at large has yet to see growth from pre-pandemic levels. Additionally, employment is at a 20-year low, while visitation to the city is also at a 20-year low, while gas prices and tolls are increasing. Land-based casino revenue also remains low when compared to the state’s peak, experienced in 2006, according to reports commissioned by casino officials.

The sentiment has been echoed by the Greater Atlantic City Chamber, which in March issued a statement opposing a permanent smoking ban. Michael Chait, president of the business group, said in an open letter that a ban “would have a negative impact on the casino industry.” “This is not the time to enact policy changes that could inflict yet another blow to an already struggling industry and the employees, families and businesses that it supports,” he warned.

But many casino employees are keen on pushing for what they see as their right to have the same health protections other workers in the state currently enjoy. “It’s been 16 years of cancer diagnoses, 16 years of watching our beloved co-workers die,” said Nicole Vitola, another Borgata dealer, according to AP. “We keep hearing, ‘Now is not the time.’ When is it going to be the right time to care about us?” 

However, Local 54 of the Unite Here casino workers union does not back this demand. In a letter sent Monday to Senate President Nicholas Scutari, Bob McDevitt, president of the union, urged lawmakers not to pass a ban. “While we want to ensure that our members work in a safe work environment, banning smoking in New Jersey casinos would mean lost jobs for our union and throughout the state, and lost tax revenues and less money for senior programs,” he wrote.

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