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Smoking is currently banned in Atlantic City casinos. Will it ever return?
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Smoking is currently banned in Atlantic City casinos. Will it ever return?

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{child_flags:top_story}{child_flags:topical}{child_flags:breaking}Smoking is currently banned in Atlantic City casinos. Will it ever return?

{child_byline}DAVID DANZIS

Staff Writer

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ATLANTIC CITY — The novel coronavirus, an airborne pathogen that affects the respiratory system, provided state officials a legitimate public health reason to temporarily ban smoking inside casinos.

However, smoking in New Jersey casinos is still legal, and Atlantic City operators have been reluctant to embrace banning the practice outright.

Absent legislative action at the state level or an unlikely self-imposed ban by the industry itself, smoking will eventually return to Atlantic City casinos, according to most experts.

David G. Schwartz, a casino historian, author and former director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, believes Atlantic City casinos will permit smoking when they are allowed to “since it’s the way ‘we’ve always done it.’”

“I think that’s short-sighted, since limiting indoor smoking seems to be the trend throughout the United States,” he said. “It doesn’t make much sense to argue that workers in restaurants or offices deserve more protection from smoke than casino workers.”

Gaming destinations, such as Atlantic City and Las Vegas, have long catered to the smoking crowd, said Schwartz.

“Historically, (casino operators) have been loath to limit smoking since there is a positive correlation between smoking and gambling,” Schwartz said.

Steve Callender, regional president for Caesars Entertainment Inc. and president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, said if smoking is legally permitted, Atlantic City operators are likely going to allow patrons to do so. But, Callender, a nonsmoker, said he was relieved state officials put a temporary ban in place.

“Everybody is interested in (our guests’ and employees’) health and, obviously, smoking is not a healthy thing,” he said. “I think all nonsmokers would love to have a nonsmoking environment, but I understand that (smoking) comes with the business.”

Patrick Ashton, international representative for U.A.W. Local 1127, the labor union for nearly 1,300 Atlantic City table games dealers, said the health of workers and guests should be the primary consideration. Ashton said the union was open to the idea of having designated smoke rooms but that table game areas and the casino floor should be completely smoke free.

“After years of research, science has proven that secondhand smoke is as dangerous as being a smoker,” Ashton said. “We’re simply not willing to put our lives on the line (for profits).”

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The percentage of gamblers who smoke is higher than that of the general population and they are an important demographic for casinos, said Michael Pollock, managing director of Spectrum Gaming Group.

A 2008 Atlantic City visitor profile survey (no such study has been conducted since) performed by Spectrum for the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority found that 23% of casino customers smoke. As of 2018, the CDC estimated that less than 14% of Americans smoke (while in 2008 that number was nearly 21%).

“The reason that smoking and casinos tend to be more aligned than most other recreational outlets is because if you are a smoker and you do want to smoke when you are out and about there are limited options,” Pollock said. “So, the fact that casinos are still relatively friendly and amenable to smoking is why you have a higher percentage.”

Jane Bokunewicz, coordinator of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality & Tourism at Stockton University said that studies have found casino revenue decreases associated with smoking bans. Delaware’s gaming revenue declined between 9% to 16% following a smoking ban, according to a 2005 study. A 2009 report on Illinois gaming revenue showed a more than 20% decrease.

However, Pollock and other industry experts rejected the notion that smoking and casinos are inseparable.

Americans’ smoking habits have shifted dramatically over the last 40 years and several states, such as Maryland and Massachusetts, began offering gaming in completely smoke-free casinos. The MGM Grand Las Vegas just announced it would be 100% smoke free when it reopens Sept. 30, making it the first Strip casino to take such a step.

The 2007 New Jersey Smoke-Free Air Act eliminated indoor smoking for nearly all establishments throughout the state, but granted an exemption for Atlantic City’s gambling halls. Atlantic City passed an ordinance restricting casino smoking to no more than 25% of the gaming floor.

A bill introduced in the state Legislature, S1878/A4541, that would eliminate the casino exemption to the Smoke-Free Air Act has not gained much traction among lawmakers in Trenton.

In 2008, Atlantic City casinos prohibited smoking, an experiment which lasted less than a month. The only Atlantic City casino to ever open as a 100% nonsmoking property was Revel Casino Hotel (now Ocean Casino Resort), which abandoned the idea after about one year and closed not long afterward.

Whether Atlantic City casinos would experience a sizable drop in visitation and revenue if the entire market were to be nonsmoking is debatable and depends on several factors, according to experts.

Pollock said going completely nonsmoking could put Atlantic City casinos at a competitive disadvantage.

“It’s going to reduce the percentage of people in casinos who are smokers. They’re going to come less frequently, stay shorter,” Pollock said. “That’s a very big market right now. And, however you feel about smoking, that’s the reality.”

But, if nearby jurisdictions were to also prohibit smoking indoors, the impact in Atlantic City would be lessened, Schwartz said.

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Contact: 609-272-7222

ddanzis@pressofac.com

Twitter @ACPressDanzis

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Staff Writer

I cover Atlantic City government and the casino industry since joining The Press in early 2018. I formerly worked as a politics & government reporter for NJ Herald and received the First Amendment: Art Weissman Memorial NJPA Award two years in a row.

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