Just three weeks into the Legislature’s new session, a long-stalled bill to ban smoking in casinos is scheduled for a key vote Monday. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Since 2006, Sen. Joe Vitale has introduced a bill every two years to end smoking in New Jersey casinos, and most times he watched legislative sessions end without the bill advancing.
But after the bill gained some traction in the session that ended earlier this month — there were multiple hearings, though the bill failed to muster enough votes for even a committee vote — Vitale believes it will finally reach the governor’s desk soon.
“It’s going to get done. Not just this session, but more likely over the next few months,” said Vitale (D-Middlesex).
Just three weeks into the Legislature’s new session, the bill is scheduled for a vote in the Senate’s health committee Monday. The committee has two new Democrats as members: Sens. Raj Mukherji and Angela McKnight, who both co-sponsored the Assembly bill in the last session.
Vitale, the committee’s chair, insists he’s “never felt more confident” in the bill passing than now.
The casino industry opposes the proposed ban. A study commissioned by the Casino Association of New Jersey suggests over 2,500 jobs could be lost if the bill becomes law. Atlantic City officials have said they’re worried about the effect it could have on the city’s economy.
One lawmaker who represents Atlantic City said he plans to introduce a compromise bill that he said will address concerns from casino owners.
“If you get everybody in a room, show both sides of the situation — concerns from the employees and the concerns from the casinos — I think there’s a path forward to build compromise with everyone,” said Sen. Vince Polistina (R-Atlantic).
Polistina’s proposed compromise would allow for enclosed smoking rooms in casinos where workers can volunteer to take shifts, plus a phase-out approach for smoking on casino floors. He plans to introduce the bill in the next two weeks, he said.
Vitale said he’s not interested in any changes to his bill.
“It gets frustrating to listen to these proposals from the industry that are just based on greed and ignorance,” said Vitale.
He characterized the casino industry’s study and claims about job losses as “scare tactics.” And he noted that the restaurant industry — which claimed “the sky would fall and thousands of wait staff would lose their jobs” when New Jersey banned smoking in most indoor places in 2006 — was wrong about their predictions.
Casino workers who support a smoking ban lobbied legislators aggressively during the last session. Borgata dealer Pete Naccarelli said he felt emboldened by their push, and added that he hears from concerned supporters of the legislation who “can’t deal with two more years of people dying.”
“People are fired up, and they’re upset, and we can’t wait any longer to get this done,” he said.
Naccarelli said his current focus is educating lawmakers who may not visit Atlantic City regularly on the dangers of smoking inside casinos. He said he wants legislators to know that any compromises will harm workers.
“We’re doing that slowly but surely. Everybody wants something to get done — the fight now is what’s going to get done. And what we want to see done is 100% non-smoking, simple,” Naccarelli said.
Polistina said if a full ban on smoking in casinos came for a vote in the Senate, he would support it.
“At the end of the day, my goal is to eliminate smoking on the floor and the impacts of secondhand smoke on employees,” he said. “So, of course, if it got to the point where there was a vote, I would be in favor of it.”
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