ATLANTIC CITY — More than 50 casino workers and representatives from Smoke Free Atlantic City and the United Auto Workers gathered on the Boardwalk on Wednesday to call for state and industry officials to permanently ban smoking on the casino floor.
Casinos have been operating smoke-free since last year when a temporary ban was initiated by Gov. Phil Murphy shortly after the casinos reopened in July following COVID-19 related closures. That ban ends Sunday.
“Indoor smoke doesn’t need to return; this is a relic of pre-COVID environments,” Onjewel Smith of American Nonsmokers’ Rights told the crowd. “It’s past time to make smoke-free air a permanent feature so that no one is exposed to toxic secondhand smoke.”
Demonstrators wore matching T-shirts and held signs displaying slogans such as “Save my lungs” and “Casino employees’ lives matter.” Demonstrators also marched along the Boardwalk chanting, “Smoke Free A.C.!”
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. The city passed an ordinance that same year restricting casino smoking to no more than 25% of the gaming floor.
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Those in favor of smoke-free casinos call this “loophole” discriminatory to casino employees.
“It’s unfair,” said Lamont White, who has worked as a casino dealer since 1985. “It doesn’t make any sense to me how people say gambling and smoking go together. Drinking and smoking go together, but you can’t go inside a bar and smoke.”
The Casino Association of New Jersey, a trade group, opposes a permanent smoking ban, saying it could lead to fewer customers, fewer casino jobs and lower tax revenue.
While acknowledging gamblers will be free to light up again starting Sunday, Gov. Phil Murphy indicated Wednesday he would look favorably on a measure lawmakers are considering to permanently end smoking in New Jersey’s casinos.
“I would be very constructive on that,” he said at a coronavirus briefing, stopping short of saying he would sign the legislation.
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Casino worker Nicole Vitola said allowing smoking allows employees to be treated like “second-class citizens.”
“How can you exclude one group of people from being able to work in a safe and smoke-free environment? How is it that you’re not allowed to smoke on our beaches and our boardwalks but you can smoke right at my table where I can’t move or walk away?” Vitola said. “All I want is the same respect that every worker in the state of New Jersey receives.”
The people who are making the decisions on smoking in casinos are not the ones who have to live with the consequences, Smith said.
“It’s not the casino executives working in their offices where no one is smoking,” Smith said. “It’s the mostly Black, brown and women frontline workers who are responsible for welcoming and engaging guests on the casino floor. They are the ones putting their health at risk every day because profits are oftentimes put in priority over worker health.”
Casino officials have refuted the criticism from employees and advocates by pointing to the “state-of-the-art air filtration systems” in which the resort’s casinos have invested.
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“With the onset of the pandemic, independent experts reviewed our air filtration systems, confirming their effectiveness in exchanging large volumes of air and keeping the air quality fresh and clean,” industry officials said in a statement last month.
But on Wednesday, members of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers released a statement that claimed the systems are not effective tools against secondhand smoke exposure.
“There is no currently available or reasonably anticipated ventilation or air cleaning system that can adequately control or significantly reduce the health risks of environmental tobacco smoke to an acceptable level,” officials wrote in a letter to Terry Glebocki, president of the Casino Association and CEO of Ocean Casino Resort.
Demonstrators echoed those concerns.
“The ventilation systems don’t provide safety,” said Ashley Pushman, a tobacco program specialist for Smoke Free Atlantic City. “There’s no ventilation out there that can possibly protect anyone from secondhand smoke.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates secondhand smoke causes roughly 41,000 deaths per year among American adults.
In addition to being confident the ventilation systems do their intended job, casino industry officials have cited economic and competitiveness reasons for wanting to allow some smoking in casinos.
“Going completely nonsmoking would place Atlantic City casinos at a competitive disadvantage with other nearby casinos that allow smoking,” association officials have said. “A smoking ban would have a significant adverse effect on Atlantic City, resulting in a decline in customers which would cause job loss, and ultimately a decline in tax revenue.”
According to the New Jersey Casino Control Commission, Atlantic City casinos earned 11% higher profits in the first quarter of this year compared to the first quarter of 2019, prior to the pandemic.
An online poll of Press readers showed 78% of people believe smoking should not return to the casinos, while 21% think it should.
One man who was smoking a cigarette Wednesday outside Tropicana Atlantic City said he was unaware that advocates were trying to permanently ban smoking in the casinos.
“It doesn’t make a difference to me either way; I don’t care,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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