Atlantic City Casinos Seemingly Win Smoking Fight, At Least for Now

Posted on: December 14, 2023, 08:26h. 

Last updated on: December 15, 2023, 09:36h.

The executives leading the nine Atlantic City casinos have seemingly won over enough New Jersey lawmakers in their quest to maintain tobacco smoking on their gaming floors.

Atlantic City casino smoking New Jersey
A cigarette receptacle at Tropicana Atlantic City is seen in a 2012 file photograph. Atlantic City casinos will retain indoor smoking privileges for the foreseeable future. (Image: Press of Atlantic City)

Just a month ago, the odds seemed good that state lawmakers in Trenton would pass legislation to end the casinos’ indoor smoking loophole, created through the New Jersey Smokefree Air Act of 2006. Two identical pieces of legislation, Senate Bill 264 and Assembly Bill 2151, mustered enough support from cosponsors to pass the statutes.

Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex), who authored S264 and leads the Senate Health, Human Services, and Senior Citizens Committee, where the bill was allocated for initial review, says he no longer has the votes needed to forward the statute to the full Senate floor.

“We’ll get there eventually,” Vitale said this week. “This will pass, and we’ll take it up in a new session with new members.”

Vitale reportedly lost consensus on the casino smoking proposal after the gaming industry warned that such a regulatory change would put their businesses at a competitive disadvantage with casinos in nearby Philadelphia, where casinos can allow indoor tobacco use. The casinos project that a smoking ban down the shore would lead to thousands of job cuts.

Sen. Fred Madden (D-Gloucester) is one Democrat who switched his support. He said that while he respects putting people’s health first, he didn’t seek public office “to start taking people’s livelihoods away.”

Back to the Drawing Board?

Atlantic City casino execs say they’re still reeling from the pandemic. Despite increased brick-and-mortar gaming revenue — casino wins were up 13% in October from the same month in 2019- the resorts say higher overhead costs deeply cut into those revenue gains.

The casinos are asking state lawmakers to give them time to conceptualize ideas to satisfy both parties of the smoking dilemma. The industry says that might include fully enclosed gaming rooms where smoking would be allowed and the cessation of smoking at table games. Only employees willing to work in the smoking chambers would continue being subjected to secondhand smoke.

Sen. Vince Polistina (R-Atlantic) says it’s time to rework the casino smoking bills. Polistina, who represents Atlantic City and sits on the State Government Wagering, Tourism, and Historic Prevention Committee, believes there are solutions other than a complete smoking ban.

“The casinos believe they can meet our goal of eliminating employee and patron exposure to secondhand smoke with a structured plan and additional capital investment into their properties over the next couple of years,” Polistina said. “Given that their concerns about potential job loss and closures have resonated with some lawmakers, this is the direction I believe we need to go so that we don’t lose momentum on this issue.”

Current Law

Under New Jersey’s 2006 smoke-free air law, Atlantic City casinos can designate 25% of their gaming floor for indoor smoking.

The exemption applies only to casinos with at minimum 150 standalone slot machines, 10 table games, or some combination of the two, as approved by the state Casino Control Commission.

No ventilation requirements or distancing rules exist about the space separating the supposedly smoke-free sections from the smoking parts.