Smoking was banned in most indoor places in 2006, but that ban exempted casinos. Lawmakers took the first step Monday to close that loophole. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Atlantic City workers who support a ban on smoking inside casinos cheered and applauded lawmakers Monday afternoon after a state Senate committee finally advanced a long-stalled measure that would approve the ban.
Lamont White, a casino dealer for over 38 years, noted that Monday represented the first meeting of the Senate’s health committee during the new legislative session, which began earlier this month.
“I think that’s a really good sign,” he said.
Bill sponsor Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex) has sponsored a bill to ban smoking in casinos in every legislative session for 18 years, and this was the first time a Senate committee has advanced it since 2007. Last February, the committee held a discussion-only hearing on the measure, and in November, the bill was scheduled for a vote but was pulled due to the lack of support.
Casino workers in favor of the ban have lobbied for years for the Legislature to pass the bill.
“I’m grateful I’m able to help them out,” Vitale said.
The committee’s five Democrats all cast votes in support of the ban and its three Republicans either voted no or abstained. Two Democrats — Sens. Shirley Turner and Andrew Zwicker— served as substitutes on the panel at the last minute for Sens. Troy Singleton and Angela McKnight, who were absent.
The bill’s future remains unclear without the vocal support of legislative leadership. Gov. Phil Murphy has said he would sign the bill if it landed on his desk. Vitale said it still has the support of Senate leadership and the majority of the Democratic caucus (Senate President Nicholas Scutari is not one of the bill’s many sponsors). An Assembly version has been introduced but is not scheduled for a vote.
Supporters of the measure argue the state should have prohibited smoking in casinos long ago. Smoking was banned in most indoor places in 2006, but that ban exempted casinos. Currently, smoking is allowed on 25% of a casino’s gambling floor.
The bill’s critics voiced the same concerns they previously have: that banning smoking in casinos could lead casinos to lay off workers if they see fewer customers. A study commissioned by the Casino Association of New Jersey suggests over 2,500 jobs could be lost if the bill goes into effect.
Christina Renna, president of the South Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said she’s concerned people will drive to Pennsylvania casinos that allow smoking.
“I really think the health and welfare of casino workers is always number one in conversations, but it’s not the only piece of the puzzle,” she said.
At least one lawmaker prefers a compromise over Vitale’s proposal for an outright ban on smoking on the casino floor. Sen. Vince Polistina (R-Atlantic) said a bill he expects to introduce would allow for enclosed smoking rooms where casino workers can voluntarily accept shifts, in addition to a phased-in ban.
Casino groups opposed to the bill have suggested similar amendments instead of an outright ban, but Vitale has maintained that he will not accept any changes to his bill.
Turner (D-Mercer) said the bill’s critics are painting a picture of “gloom and doom” if the smoking ban goes into effect, adding that smoking bans during the pandemic did not have a substantial financial impact on Atlantic City.
Casino workers said Monday they are not discouraged by the long road the bill has to passage.
“It’ll be an uphill battle because the tobacco and casino industry do not want to lose,” said Cynthia Hallett, president and CEO of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights.
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