After years of lobbying, a proposed law that would ban smoking inside Atlantic City casinos will see State lawmakers hold the first public hearing on the bipartisan bill on Monday. The proposal would close a 17-year loophole that has allowed casinos to have smoking sections despite a ban in indoor spaces set in 2006.
There will not be a vote on the proposal at the hearing hosted by the state Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee. Instead, the meeting will be “discussion only,” according to Sen. Joe Vitale, the panel’s chairman and the measure’s main sponsor.
As reported by NJ.com, Vitale said the goal is to give those affected by the legislation, especially casino workers and the casino industry, a chance to highlight the issue in a public forum, including information from studies and details about the possible economic impact.
Senate President Nick Scutari told NJ Advance Media there is still no date set for when a vote on the measure may happen. But casino workers and anti-smoking advocates who have spent years fighting for the legislation are celebrating the hearing as a major development.
Cynthia Hallett, president and CEO of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, commented: “This hearing means that Atlantic City casino workers are one step closer to not having to choose between their health and a paycheck. It’s a historic moment in the fight to protect the health of thousands of New Jersey workers.”
The measure has long been opposed by the Casino Association of New Jersey, which claimed it could drive customers who smoke to gamble in other states, thus hurting casinos’ profits, leading to layoffs and damaging Atlantic City’s economy. Vitale said it is unknown whether representatives from casinos will attend the hearing.
This is part of a larger reckoning on smoking in northeast casinos. There are similar pushes for bans in neighboring Pennsylvania, as well as Rhode Island and Virginia. Four casinos are voluntarily smoke-free in Pennsylvania, including the new Parx in Shippensburg property. Every casino in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland and New York does not allow smoking.
New Jersey barred smoking inside bars, restaurants, and other public places with the Clean Air Act in 2006, but the law included a provision that allowed casinos to permit smoking on 25% of their floors. Vitale said that was the only way for the law to pass at the time, although he quickly introduced this bill to end that exemption.
The issue gained steam in the last two years after Gov. Phil Murphy temporarily barred smoking in casinos during COVID-19 and after state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a lawmaker who opposed the bill, was ousted from office.
The group Casino Employees Against Smoking Effects, or CEASE, has lobbied incessantly for the measure. “No other group of workers in our state must deal with secondhand smoke like we do — two feet in front of our faces, without even the ability to turn our heads because we’re watching over the chips on the table,” the group argues.
More than half the members in the state Senate and Assembly — from both political parties — have co-sponsored the proposed ban. That includes the legislators who represent Atlantic City. Murphy has said he would sign the measure into law if the Legislature sends it to him.
Mark Giannantonio. Mark Giannantonio, the chief executive of Resorts casino and president of the New Jersey Casino Association, told the New York Times last year he expects a ban to be “most likely a matter of when,” but that this is the wrong time to do it because of the pandemic and the possibility of a recession.
A report commissioned in February by the Casino Association of New Jersey and conducted by independent gambling research firm Spectrum Gaming Group said a ban in Atlantic City could cost more than 2,500 casino jobs and nearly 11% of casinos’ revenue. But supporters of the ban dispute that, and a June report from Las Vegas research firm C3 Gaming suggested a ban might not cause an exodus of customers.
It is unclear when the bill will get a vote. Leaders of CEASE said Scutari, the Senate president, told them the bill “depends” on the election. Scutari has said the bill likely will pass “at some point” and denied telling the workers the election has a bearing on it.
Both the Senate and Assembly would need to pass the bill before the governor could sign it. Murphy said during a television interview last month he still supports the measure. “It takes a village on a lot of the stuff you do in the state,” the governor said. “I can’t sign bills that don’t get to my desk.”
“Having said that, on this one, I’ve been where I’ve been, which is: If a bill that does that gets to my desk, I will sign it,” Murphy added. “And God willing, it will get to my desk.”