The hot-button issue of whether to fully ban smoking in Atlantic City casinos took centerstage once again March 9 in Trenton.
The Assembly Health Committee and Assembly Tourism, Gaming and the Arts Committee held a joint hearing on Assembly Bill 2151, legislation that would close the casino smoking loophole from the state’s 2006 indoor smoking law.
Currently, smoking is permitted on 25% of Atlantic City casino floors.
The hearing, which comes on the heels of a Senate hearing a few weeks back on identical legislation (Senate Bill 264), drew a big turnout and emotional, personal testimony. Supporters point to the health aspect of the issue, while opponents say the measure could be a huge economic blow to brick-and-mortar casino activity—especially given the regional competition Atlantic City faces.
“I will acknowledge that there is some evidence that this legislation may have an economic impact on the casino industry,” said Assemblyman William Moen Jr., D-5th District, a primary bill sponsor. “However, what we do know to be true, thanks to science, is that secondhand smoke is a real threat to casino employees and patrons. I can say with certainty that over 70% of the General Assembly shares that sentiment. The list of co-sponsors has grown from five to an incredible 57. Again, I do understand how delicate of an issue this is to the economy of Atlantic City and to the entire state as a whole.”
Moen said that the Legislature has enacted policies to bolster the Atlantic City economy and will continue to be thoughtful and deliberate in doing so in the future.
“We can prohibit smoking in casinos while also protecting the economic health of casinos and Atlantic City as this bill continues to move through the legislative process,” Moen said. “I’m asking each of you to keep that goal of this measure in mind, which is to protect casino workers and patrons against the proven negative impacts of secondhand smoke.”
Following that opening, the hearing heard robust testimony from both sides of the issue.
“I’m here today to share my story,” said Lamont White, co-founder of Casino Employees Against Smoke Effects (CEASE) and a dealer at Borgata, opened his testimony before the two Assembly committees. “I’m approaching my 38th year of casino dealing. 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 hazardous conditions.”
“I’m here along with my family, friends, and colleagues to thank you for starting the process of saving our lives,” Pete Naccarelli, also a cofounder of CEASE and Borgata dealer. “And to also ask you to complete the process by passing the bill to eliminate the smoking loophole that the casinos have taken advantage of for far too long.”
Testimony continued throughout the more than two-hour hearing with a number of people sharing personal stories and their own health battles as reason why they are in favor of the smoking ban legislation, which has support from a diverse coalition.
“I’m out on a medical leave now. I don’t even know how long I’m going to be able to live,” said Holly Diebler, a Tropicana Atlantic City craps dealer who was diagnosed with throat cancer, during an emotional testimony. “But I love my job. I truly do. I always have and I always will.”
Diebler said she does not want to leave her job.
“But all of the oncologists involved have told me that it’s the choice of life-or-death at this point,” she said.
Meanwhile, a number of people and groups who oppose the ban testified as well, around the common theme of potential lost economic activity and what it could mean for Atlantic City, its casinos, its workers and the area economy as a whole.
“I am here before you with the unpopular opinion, admittedly, in opposition to the smoking ban in Atlantic City casinos,” said Christina Renna, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey, who noted that all of the casinos are members of her organization.
Renna said that the chamber cares deeply about South Jersey and wants the casinos and its employees to succeed, but believes it is not the right time to make such a move given the economic uncertainty that lies ahead. Because of that fact, she said – combined with the reality that casinos are not back at pre-pandemic levels – nothing should be done that will potentially put casinos at a disadvantage, especially against regional competitors.
“We feel as though the timing is not right for a smoking ban now,” she said. “Although, admittedly, we agree that a smoking ban should happen when the time is right.”
Althea Ford, vice president government affairs, New Jersey Business & Industry Association (NJBIA), followed Renna with testimony opposing the legislation.
“I do stand here with the unpopular position to oppose this legislation,” said Ford. “Our main concern is business. And we are just concerned about timing and ensuring that the tourism and the revenue generator that casinos have could be impacted by this legislation.”
Ford was followed by Bob McDevitt, President of the Unite Here Local 54 casino workers union, who testified with some dire predictions.
“If this bill passes, then one casino will close,” McDevitt testified, in a moment that got a bit chippy as supporters of the legislation made comments from the gallery. “I believe a 10% reduction in the gaming revenue in Atlantic City will result in, at least, a closure. And that will be between 2,500 and 3,000 people out of jobs.”
McDevitt continued that there are not enough job opportunities in South Jersey to replace that kind of loss.
“Down south, there’s no other jobs. We don’t have other jobs to go to,” McDevitt explained. “Down here in South Jersey, it’s like Hooterville. There’s nothing going on down there other than casino gambling. And anything we do to keep that engine running is good for my members.”
“The Atlantic City casino industry is still very much in a rebuilding and recovery phase from where it was at the start of the pandemic,” the Casino Association of New Jersey (CANJ) said in a statement. “Visitation to Atlantic City is near a 20-year low, while gas and toll prices are increasing. Adding a smoking ban could cause a devastating effect to the community and state in this difficult economy.”
The two committee chairmen – Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr., D-7th District, Health Committee chair and primary bill sponsor, and Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, D-28th District, Tourism, Gaming, and the Arts Committee chair – closed out the hearing by sharing their personal admiration for, and connection to, Atlantic City as well as why they support the measure.
“I always learn something from these hearings. And one of the things I’ve learned and understand is that everyone rightly is concerned about the health of Atlantic City as a region in New Jersey. We want it to succeed. Everybody in this room wants Atlantic City to succeed,” said Conaway. “It needs to continue to be an economic driver for the South Jersey region. And we in the Legislature, as we move forward, are going to do all we can to ensure that that happens because it’s important to the lives of the people who live and work there. And indeed, for the people who come to our state and recreate there. We want to make sure that important engine of the economy continues to work and to thrive. We want the people, obviously, to thrive there as well.”
As Caputo reflected back to his career working in Atlantic City for many years, he noted the ups and downs the industry has gone through, and how it helped support his family. He said the long-term survival of the city is contingent on its ability to continue adapting, and that he would never vote for anything that would be detrimental to AC.
“If you don’t adapt to the circumstances in front of you, you’ll become extinct,” said Caputo. “And that’s what we’re trying to prevent. We’re at a tipping point in terms of survival for our employees and the industry. But we have to be able to look through the window and see that maybe adjusting our position might be beneficial not only to the employees but to business.”
Caputo said that sometimes thoughts come from the bottom up.
“And in this particular case, we see that the employees are the leaders. They’re the ones telling us what’s important,” said Caputo. “We can’t walk away from that. We have to be able to adjust to the circumstances and to legislate things that are going to be beneficial to the employees. If they’re beneficial to the employees, it will be beneficial to the business and the environment and the community. So, let’s not run away from this challenge. Let’s deal with it.”
There was no vote Thursday on the bill and there is no timetable for what happens next.
However, both chambers have indicated plans to move forward, and Gov. Phil Murphy has said he will sign the legislation if and when it reaches his desk.