Bill to ban smoking in casinos could move in spring, sponsor says

By: - February 1, 2022 6:57 am

Sen. Joe Vitale (Courtesy of New Jersey Senate Democrats)

Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex) said he plans to move a bill expanding the casino smoking ban in early spring, despite opposition from casino operators who charge the bill would leave them unable to compete with Pennsylvania gaming facilities.

“They try to cloud the argument with job loss or financial ruin,” said Vitale, chair of the Senate Health Committee. “None of that will happen, but they like to scare them employees — ‘you’ll lose your job if we stop smoking in the casino,’ notwithstanding the fact that the croupiers are getting lung cancer and emphysema because people constantly blow smoke in their face.”

The bill will likely remain on the back burner until lawmakers finish working through bills that advanced in the previous legislative session but did not make it to the governor’s desk.

Casinos and casino simulcast facilities were left out of a 2006 New Jersey law that disallowed smoking inside of workplaces and other public indoor spaces.

Gaming industry groups have charged a ban on indoor smoking would depress profits and leave them unable to compete with casinos in neighboring Pennsylvania, where indoor smoking is allowed in some facilities.

Those claims have been contested by activists, who point to soaring gaming profits during a temporary indoor smoking ban enacted by executive order to stem the spread of COVID-19 in 2020. Between then and July 2021, when the temporary ban lapsed, casino profits soared from their 2020 slump.

In June, the last month for which the ban was in effect, Atlantic City Casinos set a monthly revenue record.

Joseph Tyrrell, regional vice president for government relations at Caesars Entertainment, lobbied against the bill in the previous session. Caesars Entertainment owns three Atlantic City casinos, Caesars, Harrah’s Resort, and the Tropicana. Terrell did not return an email seeking comment.

The 2006 casino carveout remained largely unchallenged until the temporary smoking ban lapsed in July, but casino workers have since mounted a campaign to pressure lawmakers to side with them.

That push has met with mixed success. While Sen. Vince Polistina (R-Atlantic), who represents Atlantic City in the Legislature, has signed onto Vitale’s bill as a co-sponsor, legislative leadership has yet to take a hard stance on the issue.

“That bill’s been around for a while, so we’ll give it its considerations just like everything else,” Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) said Monday.

Gov. Phil Murphy has said he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

Polistina said casinos are seeking to keep some smoking areas in their facilities, albeit more limited ones than exist today. It’s possible lawmakers may move to amend the bill to make those accommodations, but Vitale said the final bill would probably not include them.

“Having designated smoking areas is something they already have. This part of the floor is smoke-free. This part of the floor is smoking. It’s no different than having a peeing end of the pool. Who would go in that pool?” he said, later adding, “The concession is that they can smoke outside.”

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.