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November 20, 2023

There's a new effort in New Jersey to ban smoking in casinos

Lawmakers in Trenton also are considering prohibiting the sales of menthol and clove cigarettes, the only remaining flavored tobacco products permitted to be sold in the state

New Jersey lawmakers plan to advance legislation, long sought by casino workers, that would end a carveout to the state's indoor smoking ban within gambling facilities.

New Jersey banned indoor smoking in 2006 but allowed the practice to continue in casinos and their simulcasting facilities, but casino workers have urged lawmakers for years to eliminate the exemption, citing the damaging effects secondhand smoke has on their health.

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"The casino workers are becoming increasingly sick. Some have died because they've been exposed directly to secondhand smoke," said Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex), the bill's prime Senate sponsor. "In no other workplace in New Jersey do we permit putting workers at risk of serious health consequences, but they have. It's just untenable."

Lawmakers have sought to end the carveout for as long as it has existed, but their efforts have gotten a boost in recent years as casino workers organized to push against the practice. The workers' campaign has been successful in building legislative support — 26 senators and 57 members of the Assembly now are sponsors or cosponsors of the bill.

Still, the legislation has hardly advanced. The Senate's health committee heard testimony on the bill in February, but didn't vote on it.

Democratic legislative leaders have said the bill would be considered in the lame-duck session before the next legislative session starts in January, but it could see amendments before reaching the floor.

Vitale, the Senate health committee's chairman, said some lawmakers had suggested requiring higher pay for workers exposed to smoke or sequestering casinos' smoking sections behind glass — changes he would oppose.

"I don't support any amendments. There cannot be any amendments. I've heard them all over the last several years, and even recently. Those amendments are unworkable and just really offensive," Vitale said.

Atlantic City's casinos have long opposed the ban, charging it would make them uncompetitive with casinos in neighboring states and depress earnings enough to force some casinos to close.

But few of New Jersey's neighbors allow smoking in their casinos, and in Pennsylvania, where some casinos permit indoor smoking, lawmakers are weighing a similar measure that would end a host of indoor smoking carveouts.

Gov. Phil Murphy has said he'd sign the bill.

The Casino Association of New Jersey did not return a request for comment.

Menthol ban

Another piece of tobacco legislation faces a less certain path to the governor's desk.

That bill would ban the sale of menthol and clove-flavored cigarettes, the only types of flavoring that escaped the state's 2008 ban on flavored tobacco. Menthol, in particular, is a top target for lawmakers, who point to research that shows young and Black smokers overwhelmingly prefer menthol.

"We are addicting an entire generation of new smokers because of that flavor," Vitale said. "For decades, big tobacco targeted the Black communities in this country in order to addict them to their menthol brands, and they were successful."

The federal Food and Drug Administration in 2020 found roughly 81% of Black smokers prefer menthol cigarettes, and research has shown first-time smokers most often choose menthol cigarettes and are more likely to continue smoking if they do so.

The push to ban menthol has met with opposition from tobacco retailers, including gas stations and convenience stores, who worry the ban will cut cigarette sales and the foot traffic they bring while doing little to change the overall health of New Jersey's menthol smokers.

In New Jersey, menthol cigarettes account for roughly 40% of cigarette sales and are sometimes responsible for between a third and half of small retailers' gross sales, said Eric Blomgren, director of government affairs for the New Jersey Gasoline, C-Store, and Automotive Association.

While cigarettes themselves are not profitable, customers who buy them often buy other products — like snacks or drinks — that come with a higher markup, he said.

"That's part of the fear: that now people will be less likely to come into the store if they're going to a place that's selling illegally or if they're buying from some guy selling it off the street," Blomgren said.

Opponents also worry a statewide menthol ban wouldn't be strongly enforced nor stop New Jersey residents from crossing state lines to buy cigarettes.

The FDA is working to craft its own menthol ban. Last month, the agency sent final proposed rules to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review, meaning a federal ban could come soon.

New Jersey Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence McDonald for questions: Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.