Last-minute snag delays vote on New Jersey casino smoking ban
Casino workers who support a smoking ban say their health is at risk. Casino owners say a ban could doom Atlantic City's economic recovery. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Lawmakers delayed a long-anticipated vote on a bill to ban smoking in Atlantic City casinos Thursday after failing to secure the necessary support to advance it out of committee, dashing the hopes of casino workers who say their health is at risk the longer smoking is permitted in their workplace.
The delay came after the Senate’s health committee heard emotional testimony from some of the hundreds of casino workers who filled the chamber and an overflow room. Throughout the hourlong hearing, the workers cheered for lawmakers who voiced their support for the legislation and booed the opponents.
“Passing these bills as written will be one step closer to closing the gap on the worst social inequalities in the state of New Jersey,” said Nicole Vitola, a dealer at Borgata. “After all, it’s the only way to ensure casino employees do not fall victim to preventable, untimely deaths and serious illnesses from secondhand smoke.”
The casino workers are at odds with casino owners and business groups, who claim a smoking ban would discourage customers from visiting the gambling mecca and put the casinos’ survival at risk. They pointed to a study commissioned by the Casino Association of New Jersey suggesting over 2,500 jobs could be lost if the bill becomes law, adding that losing even 500 jobs would be detrimental to a city working on its economic revival.
“I’ve had very tough conversations with the industry on a plethora of issues, and this is one of them. If there’s some sort of compromise where it’s a win-win and everyone can come together and we can maintain the integrity of jobs, I’m all for that,” Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small said.
The committee was set to vote on the bill Thursday, but committee chair Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex) said there weren’t enough votes to pass it. Sen. Bob Singer, a Republican who supports the legislation, was not present.
Vitale said the bill has the support of Senate President Nick Scutari (D-Union), which is key if it is to get a vote on the Senate floor. It also has plenty of legislative and bipartisan support — 26 senators and 57 assembly members sponsor or co-sponsor the bill. Gov. Phil Murphy said he’d sign the measure if it passes.
There’s a “pretty good” chance it will be heard on the Senate floor before the legislative session ends in early January, Vitale said. A committee vote could come in December.
“I’ve done some really tough deals in my career, and I don’t take no for an answer,” Vitale told reporters after the hearing.
But he wants the bill to stay as written and has been hesitant to support any amendments. Casino owners have indicated they would be open to an amendment allowing enclosed smoking rooms in the casinos, where workers could volunteer to work. That plan brought gasps and jeers from the crowd of casino workers, who want a total ban.
This bill comes more than 15 years after New Jersey banned smoking in most public indoor spaces, with an exemption for casinos. It saw its first hearing in the chamber in February, when lawmakers held a discussion on it but no vote.
Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), who was governor when the 2006 smoking ban was enacted, expressed regret over the exemption for casinos, but said it was the price lawmakers had to pay to get the bill passed.
“It was wrong. The time has come to do the right thing,” he said.
Vitale apologized to workers who made the trip from Atlantic City Thursday expecting a vote.
“Those of us who care about (the workers) are still supportive and doing all we can to protect them. Those who don’t support this? They should pay them a visit and let them know what it’s like to work in this environment,” he said.
Sen. Fred Madden (D-Gloucester) suggested an 18-month phase-in, allowing casinos to set up enclosed smoking rooms with air treatment and ventilation.
“I didn’t sign up to this to start taking people’s livelihoods away. But it’s extremely important to put health first, and that’s what I’m trying to do here,” he said.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.