Atlantic City Casino Smoking Debate Takes Center Stage

Posted: July 5, 2022, 10:14 a.m.

Last update: July 5, 2022, 10:14 a.m.

With a potentially catastrophic strike at Atlantic City casinos averted, gambling industry officials and top state lawmakers are now turning their attention to the contentious debate over whether indoor smoking should continue.

Atlantic City Casino Smokers' Strike Union
A gambler plays a slot machine while smoking a cigarette at the Ocean Casino Resort. The days of Atlantic City casino smoking could be numbered. (Image: PA)

Atlantic City casinos are allowed to allocate up to 25% of their gaming space to smoking. But a movement to end the 16-year loophole that was granted to casinos when New Jersey passed its smoke-free air law in 2006 continues to gain momentum.

The latest tally shows that half of New Jersey’s 40 Senate members and 43 of 80 state representatives in the General Assembly sponsor or co-sponsor legislation banning smoking in Atlantic City’s indoor casinos. Both Senate Bill 264 and Assembly Bill 2151 sought to eliminate smoking in gambling halls.

Identical bills already have enough support for the measures to pass through their respective legislative chambers. But the statutes have made little progress since their introduction earlier this year.

Senate leader explains delay

New Jersey Senate Speaker Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) has a very different view than his predecessor, former state Senate Speaker Stephen Sweeney (D-Cumberland), regarding smoking in indoor casinos.

Sweeney was a staunch defender of Atlantic City’s gambling industry during his two decades in office. After his shock 2021 election loss to a Republican political newcomer, Sweeney championed a legislative effort to recalculate how much the nine casinos pay in annual property tax.

The Democratic lawmaker said that without the savings, which are expected to save casinos $55 million this year alone and between $30 million and $65 million a year through 2026, up to four casinos would be at risk of closing. Sweeney urged the state to leave Atlantic City alone as he left Trenton. Scutari says he should act.

I don’t think people should smoke indoors,” Scutari said. NJ advance media last week in his first public comments on the matter. But asked why S.264 and A.2151 haven’t moved forward despite seemingly adequate support, Scutari explained that it’s a complicated question.

“There’s more to it than just, ‘Do I think people should smoke indoors?’ “, explained the president of the Senate. “No. I don’t like smoke. I’ve never been a smoker. But there are economic things, there are other elements at work. We have to work with the industry and with the [anti-smoking] defenders”.

The industry argues that a smoking ban would greatly harm gambling. A study commissioned by the Casino Association of New Jersey, the lobbying arm of the nine casinos, found that an indoor smoking ban would reduce gross revenue Annual Games (GGR) from 20 to 25%. This would mean a reduction of about 2,500 jobs, according to industry leaders.

Such claims are disputed by the anti-tobacco crowd. Another study, this one conducted independently by casino research firm C3 Gaming, found that smoke-free casinos no longer generate less GGR than their smoking counterparts.

As president of the Senate, Scutari decides which bills passed by the committees are considered by the plenary assembly. The New Jersey Legislature is scheduled to reconvene after its summer recess in September.

strike through

Atlantic City casino officials managed to avert a strike at its resorts just hours before last weekend’s Fourth of July celebrations.

Union leaders from Unite Here Local 54 were threatening to strike at Borgata, Caesars, Harrah’s, Tropicana and Hard Rock over Independence Day weekend. But the gambling industry and the union reached new collective agreements at the end of last week.

The union said it was “the best deal we’ve ever had”, although specific terms were not disclosed. Unite Here was seeking substantial salary increases for its members.