A long-anticipated measure finally received a public hearing Feb. 13 as the state Senate Health, Human Services, and Senior Citizens Committee held a discussion-only session to determine whether to ban smoking at Atlantic City casinos.
The legislation (Senate Bill 264/Assembly Bill 2151) would eliminate the casino exception from the state’s 2006 Smoke-Free Air Act.
Monday’s hearing drew supporters and opponents of the measure — from workers, medical associations, the bill’s many sponsors and other stakeholders in support, to casino groups, unions and business associations arguing that banning smoking would add another hurdle for casinos attempting to draw more brick-and-mortar visitors to their venues, especially in the wake of COVID as they face increased regional competition and with the rise of internet gaming.
“We’re here today to begin dialogue and, hopefully, in my view, overturn the permission to smoke indoors at casinos so that we can begin to protect the health and welfare of all those workers who put their lives on the line every day now,” said Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-19th District, chairman of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee, and a primary sponsor of the measure.
As the hearing opened, former Gov. and current Sen. Richard Codey, D-27th District, noted that he was acting governor when the Smoke-Free Air Act became law, saying he had to agree to the casino carveout for it to pass — something he regretted having to include in the bill.
“It’s time to have it over with,” said Codey.
“It was really disappointing then, as it is today, that we continue to have smoking in casinos,” said Vitale. “From my perspective, it’s prehistoric. It’s immoral that the owners of the casinos think that it’s okay for their employees to be expendable, that they are acquiring any number of different diseases because of the smoke they are exposed to.”
Vitale rattled off a list of ailments, such as breast cancer, lung cancer, emphysema and others.
“The list is long. And nowhere else in New Jersey do we permit smoking,” said Vitale.
Sen. Shirley Turner, D-15th District, a prime bill sponsor and a long-time proponent of the measure, led off the testimony.
“For the past 17 years, we have been fighting to require casinos to comply with the indoor smoke-free law so that casino workers and patrons have the same protections form secondhand smoke that every other worker and consumer in New Jersey enjoys,” said Turner. “We cannot allow the casino industry in New Jersey to continue to put their profits over the health of our people.”
Turner added that it is “truly shameful” to be in this position – to have to protect casino workers 17 years after going smoke-free indoors in the Garden State.
“I am proud to join with the casino workers and New Jerseyans who want to be breathe clean air, enjoy good health,” said Turner. “So, I urge you to support S264, finally to make it a law in New Jersey. We have had 17 years to make this right. We must stop ignoring the risk of indoor smoking and stop rolling the dice with the health and lives of our people. There is no compromise. There is no in-between. Our goal is to be smoke-free in 2023.”
Among the supporters who testified was Lamont White, co-founder of Casino Employees Against Smoke Effects (CEASE), who has been a casino dealer for nearly 38 years.
“That’s 38 years of inhaling toxic gas at work, 17 years of being part of the only class of people in this great state that work in such a hazardous condition,” said White. “Thirty-eight years is quite a career. But I speak for my co-workers, when I say, I am much, much more than a casino dealer.”
White spoke about his family and the risks of the smoke he and his colleagues inhale.
“When I was 25 and my co-workers in their 40s were getting sick and dying, it didn’t seem like a big deal to me. I was young and naïve,” said White. “Back then, people in their 40s were old to me. Now I’m 60. I realize that people dying in their 40s and 50s is not the norm. Now I know it’s because of our workplace.”
Opponents of the bill included groups such as Local 54 of the Unite Here casino workers unions, the Casino Association of New Jersey (CANJ), the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey and the New Jersey Business & Industry Association (NJBIA), who argue that the ban would put New Jersey at a competitive disadvantage against neighboring states, such as Pennsylvania, and potentially cause job loss if in-person gaming numbers were to slip as a result.
Christina Renna, president and CEO, CCSNJ, conceded that she thought a ban would eventually happen, but cautioned about timing.
“I think it’s inevitable that it will happen. And, quite frankly, it’s probably the right thing to do. But the timing has to be right when it’s done. I would argue that the timing is not right today,” said Renna. “The casinos have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Those great numbers you see, that’s not brick-and-mortar. That’s not the foot traffic going into the casinos. It hasn’t returned yet. Additionally, there’s a recession potentially right around the corner.”
“On behalf of the NJBIA and our members, we are concerned about the bill,” Althea Ford, vice president of government affairs, NJBIA, told the panel, noting that the organization understands the health concerns. “We are concerned that moving forward with such a legislation will put New Jersey at a competitive disadvantage within the region.”
“An immediate smoking ban in New Jersey casinos, while smoking is still permitted in casinos in neighboring states, against the backdrop of an already weakened and worsening economic climate, would endanger thousands of jobs and jeopardize millions of dollars in tax revenue dedicated to seniors and the disabled of New Jersey,” said CANJ in a statement.
The bill was not voted on during the Monday session, though it does have overwhelming bipartisan support with Gov. Phil Murphy already indicating he would sign it if it reaches his desk.
That process still has a bit to go as the measure will need to clear committees in both the Senate and Assembly, and then a full vote, before potentially heading to Murphy’s desk to be signed into law.
“On behalf of the committee, I want to thank everyone for coming out today and appreciate your testimony. A lot of it was very personal, very thoughtful,” said Vitale. “And as I said at the beginning of this hearing, I’m looking forward to a full vote on this bill, hopefully in the coming months.”