Health Care

Casino smoking ban bills face next tests in 2023

Workers are pushing state legislatures to institute nonsmoking policies, but bills have stalled in the past.
In this Dec. 9, 2021 photo, New Jersey state Senator Vince Polistina speaks to Atlantic City casino workers protesting near the state capitol in Trenton N.J. in support of legislation that would ban smoking in Atlantic City’s casinos. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

An impasse over New Jersey legislation that would extend the state’s smoking ban to its casinos is attracting attention from other states, as COVID inspired a national reassessment of casino carveouts in smoking bans.

Prompted by a worker-led movement in Atlantic City, more than half of New Jersey’s state lawmakers have cosponsored House and Senate bills that would extend New Jersey’s 2006 Smoke-Free Air Act to the state’s nine casinos. Gov. Phil Murphy (D) has said he would sign a bill that makes it to his desk.

But the measures have stalled in previous sessions, and it is unclear whether Democrats in control of the state legislature will schedule hearings after they gavel in in January.

“Everyone understands — including the casinos — that this is going to happen at some point,” said New Jersey state Sen. Vince Polistina (R), whose district includes Atlantic City. “It’s just a matter of when.”

The debate is a reflection of the sea change in thinking about worker safety and smoking laws in the decades since lawmakers first started debating indoor bans. When states passed the first of those regulations in the early 2000s, many exempted casinos, assuming that gamblers were more likely to smoke than the general population, more tolerant of secondhand smoke, and more willing to travel to venues that allowed it — taking their tax money with them.

Those theories remained largely untested until the early days of COVID, when casinos across the country adopted emergency measures to protect their employees and customers.

Polistina said New Jersey lawmakers are looking to New York, where three new downstate casinos authorized in April will have to adhere to the state’s indoor smoking bans, and Pennsylvania, where a statewide ban has gained traction after several casinos voluntarily went smoke free.

Casino workers in Rhode Island are also pushing the state legislature to extend its ban to the state’s two casinos. A bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Teresa Tanzi (D) last year did not make it out of the finance committee.

“If everyone was on board at the same time, that would be wonderful so there’s no competitive disadvantage,” Polistina said.

Casino smoking is already banned in Connecticut, Delaware and Maryland.

The gambling industry has so far resisted wholesale changes, pointing to a short-lived Atlantic City ban in 2008 that was reversed after gaming revenue plunged by 20% in its first week. Two recent studies based on pre-COVID data predicted similar losses if a ban were reinstated.

“We believe that more time is needed to devise and implement a solution that will address the concerns of our employees without jeopardizing jobs and benefits to seniors,” President Mark Giannantonio said in a September statement to Philadelphia’s NBC affiliate about New Jersey’s proposed ban. A representative did not return a request for comment for this story.

Local 54 of the Unite Here casino workers union, which represents workers in Atlantic City, also opposes a smoking ban, saying it would cost jobs.

Meanwhile, dozens of casinos nationwide have voluntarily introduced their own no-smoking policies in the past two years. That includes nearly 160 casinos operated by Indian tribes, according to an evaluation of post-pandemic casino smoking trends by the Las Vegas-based C3 Gaming.

New Jersey and Pennsylvania casinos were required to follow emergency declarations, which included indoor smoking bans and mask mandates, for a year during the height of the pandemic. Those mandates were lifted in June 2021. But two casinos in Pennsylvania, Rivers Casino Philadelphia and Parx Casino, have remained smoke-free.

In Las Vegas, where smoking was allowed at casinos throughout the pandemic, Park MGM, which is in one of the busiest locations on the Strip, kept in place a no-smoking rule it instituted in 2020.

The C3 evaluation found that banning smoking no longer causes a dramatic
drop in gaming revenue, and that nonsmoking properties appear to be performing better than their counterparts that continue to allow smoking.

Such findings, and the experience of working in a smoke free environment, also emboldened workers to organize.

“I always hated the smoke,” said Nicole Vitola, a Borgata dealer. “After this pandemic hit, I said, ‘There’s no way in — I’ll use the word — hell are they going to bring back smoking and I’m going to be OK with it.’”

Vitola said she worked in smoke-filled rooms through two pregnancies and now wears an N95 mask at work — not to protect her from COVID but to block the smoke. When the state allowed smoking to return to casino floors last summer, she started attending rallies and set up a Facebook group with colleagues who shared her concerns. The group, called Casino Employees Against Smoking’s Effects (CEASE), now represents workers at all of Atlantic City’s casinos .

Pete Naccarelli, also a Borgata dealer and CEASE co-leader, said the nature of table games exposes dealers to more secondhand smoke than other service workers because dealers are not allowed to walk away from the table, or even turn their heads.

“We have to stand and face the smoke while the players are facing us, blowing it and blowing it — because they’re looking at their cards or dice or whatever — right at our face,” he said.”

Cynthia Hallett, president and CEO of the national nonprofit Americans for Nonsmokers Rights, said advocates for indoor bans have been working to mobilize casino workers for years, but until recently they have always feared retaliation. Once the CEASE workers started to speak out, she said, it was easy to get New Jersey lawmakers on board.

“We’ve got so much legislative support.” Hallett said. “There’s really no legitimate excuse that we can think of to not at least have scheduled a hearing. Let’s have the debate. What are they afraid to talk about?”

The measures’ primary sponsors and House and Senate leadership offices did not respond to questions about the delay, although a spokeswoman for Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D) confirmed that no hearing has been scheduled

“We’ve worked hard on this bill with the goal of growing cosponsors and continue to work with leadership towards a bill that can be successful,” New Jersey Assemblyman William Moen (D), who has led the effort in his chamber, said in a statement.

Sen. Joseph Vitale (D), who sponsored the Senate bill, told NJ Online Gambling in October that there was no news on the bill’s fate but that he believes “it will get done.” Scutari and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D) have said they are working with stakeholders, but that the economic issues and interests make it complicated.

State Sen. Wayne Fontana (D), who sponsored one of the bills in Pennsylvania, said New Jersey “will wait a long time” if it is standing by for his state to also advance legislation.

“You have every casino, every lobbyist for the casinos working against it,” Fontana said.