N.J. Health Committee green-lights a bill to ban smoking in AC casinos

The casino industry opposes the measure, while many casino workers support it.

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N.J. Senate hearing

Members of the N.J. State Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee listen to testimony about proposed legislation to ban smoking in Atlantic City casinos. (David Matthau/WHYY)

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After years of heated discussions, hours of testimony during three previous hearings and several postponed voting sessions, including one last month, the New Jersey State Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee has given the green light to legislation banning smoking in Atlantic City casinos.

The casino industry opposes the measure, while many casino workers support it.

During a jam-packed meeting Monday afternoon, Nicole Vitola, a casino blackjack dealer and the founder of Casino Employees Against Smoking Effects (CEASE), said her co-workers continue to suffer from heart disease, cancer and numerous health issues because of second-hand smoke.

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“Dealers, in particular, are mere inches away from players blowing smoke in our faces. As a dealer myself, I can’t take my eyes off the game, leave the table, or wave the smoke away,” she said.

People cheering during the Senate hearing
An overflow crowd cheered when the Committee approved the measure. (David Matthau/WHYY)

She told members of the Committee, “By allowing casino workers to be exposed to deadly secondhand smoke, you are knowingly allowing social inequalities, health disparities and injustices to exist in our state.”

Donna Decaprio, the president of the main casino workers union in Atlantic City, Local 54, urged the Committee to reject the proposed bill.

“A total ban is going to result in an economic catastrophe for Atlantic City, Atlantic County and the state, there are very broad reaching impacts of this,” she said.

She argued a smoking ban would eliminate 3,000 Atlantic City jobs, because gamblers who smoke would travel to Live Casino in Philadelphia, where smoking is permitted in 50% of the building.

Decaprio called for what she termed “a balanced compromise,” something in between a total ban and smoking everywhere.

When the chair of the Committee, Joe Vitale, asked her what she was referring to, she suggested walled-off areas, improved ventilation systems and other physical changes be made inside casinos.

Vitale rejected those ideas, saying they had previously been studied and shown to be ineffective.

Cynthia Howlett, the executive director of the group Americans for Nonsmokers Rights, said claims made by the casino industry that a smoking ban will hurt revenue and result in job losses are not true.

She said a smoking ban would actually encourage more visitors to Atlantic City.

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“You’re going to give them a better experience, free of cancer-causing carcinogens and toxins, you’re opening our doors to more potential players,” she said.

Vitale agreed, noting independent research has determined banning smoking in casinos would make the gaming halls more popular and increase the number of visitors.

Christina Renna, the president of the Chamber of Commerce of Southern New Jersey, disagreed.

She said her organization is concerned about a total smoking ban in casinos because “no one truly knows the economic impact of what it will do.”

During the hearing testimony about the measure, which amends the New Jersey Smoke-Free Air Act of 2005 to prohibit smoking in casinos and casino simulcasting facilities, was limited to a select group of representatives on both sides of the issue because so much previous testimony had been given.

The anti-smoking ban bill was released by the Committee with a vote of 5 to 1, with two abstentions. The measure could be approved by an Assembly Committee in the coming days and scheduled for a vote by the full legislature next month.

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