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February 14, 2023

New Jersey bill would ban smoking inside Atlantic City casinos

The state's 2006 anti-smoking law allowed gamblers to still light up in designated portions of the gaming floor. Many casino workers are in favor of ending that exemption

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Atlantic City Smoking Ban Kaysha/Unsplash

A bill in New Jersey would prohibit smoking inside Atlantic City's casinos. Despite banning smoking in nearly all public indoor settings in 2006, casinos remained exempt from the law. The change is being supported by many casino workers concerned about their health.

As any smoker knows, it's tough to find places indoors where it's permissible to light up cigarettes these days. For much of the 20th century it was common to see people smoking indoors, efforts the last couple decades to eliminate smoking indoors – and in some instances outdoors – have been successful in many parts of the country. 

In 2006, New Jersey banned smoking in public places – including beaches, parks and workplaces – but it remains permitted in designated areas inside Atlantic City's nine casinos under a provision of the New Jersey Smoke-Free Air Act, which allows casinos can designate up to 25% of their gaming floors as areas were smoking is allowed.

On Monday, lawmakers began debating a bill that would eliminate the Atlantic City casino smoking exemption. (Audio of the hearing is posted online.) If it passes, it only will be the second time in the 17 years since New Jersey's anti-smoking law took effect that it has been amended to add more restrictions: In 2019, lawmakers voted to prohibit smoking in the passenger drop-off and pick-up areas at New Jersey airports.

This new push to eliminate smoking in Atlantic City casinos is backed by one group of casino workers, some of whom testified at Monday's hearing about what they say are the effects secondhand smoke has had on their health. Employees are advocating for similar legislative initiatives ban smoking in casinos in other states, like Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

Opponents of the New Jersey bill — among them one of the man unions that represents Atlantic City's casino works — say that banning smoking casinos will harm revenue and jobs by encouraging gamblers to go to neighboring states, where smoking is permitted, the Associate Press reported

"Casinos' claims about job losses when legislators close the casino smoking loophole are nothing but hot air — they can't even fill the job openings they have now," Cynthia Hallett, president and CEO of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, said ahead of Monday's hearing. "Their sky-is-falling predictions cannot be taken seriously given the realty of the employment situation in Atlantic City. And maybe they wouldn't have such a hard time finding employees if potential workers knew they wouldn't have to work in a smoke-filled environment for eight hours a day. We suggest they end indoor smoking and use that as a recruiting tool."

In September 2020, smoking was temporarily prohibited inside the casinos during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, New Jersey was reopening some indoor activities, and many of New Jersey's casinos had upgraded their ventilation systems in order to better clean the air. In a letter to the Casino Association of New Jersey, the trade group for Atlantic City casinos, the president of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers said its engineers were concerned allowing people to smoke would undermine that effort.  

When Gov. Phil Murphy lifted the temporary ban in July 2021, he indicated he would  support a permanent ban on smoking.

"At the end of the day, we will still get good business," Murphy told News12 New Jersey in September. "Atlantic City is an American gem. We've got the beach and other competitors don't. And this is the right thing for our respective health." 

The ban has bipartisan majority support from New Jersey's state legislature. Though no date have been set for a vote on the bill, Monday's hearing helped determine the next steps for Sens. Joseph Vitale and Shirley K. Turner, the bill's sponsors

"New Jersey can't tolerate a law which bans smoking as a health hazard in places other than casinos and simulcasting facilities," said Vitale, a Democrat from Middlesex County. "To suggest it's okay for casino workers to be exposed to second-hand smoke, but not bartenders, waitresses and office clerks is absurd."