Workers urge lawmakers to ban smoking at N.J. casinos

New Jersey casino workers want the state to implement a ban on smoking a casinos, citing health concerns. Advocates with Casino Employees Against Smoking Effects  organized a rally in Trenton on Dec. 9, 2021. (Tennyson Donyéa/WHYY)

New Jersey casino workers want the state to implement a ban on smoking a casinos, citing health concerns. Advocates with Casino Employees Against Smoking Effects organized a rally in Trenton on Dec. 9, 2021. (Tennyson Donyéa/WHYY)

New Jersey casino employees lobbied on Thursday for a bill that would ban smoking in casinos across the state.

At a rally at the State House in Trenton, organizers with Casino Employees Against Smoking Effects (C.E.A.S.E.) said it’s a matter of life and death.

“The smoke at our tables is intolerable, and people are getting sick. Casino workers have been dying for years and nobody’s addressing this,” said Nicole Vitola, a Cape May resident, who works at Borgata Hotel, Casino, and Spa in Atlantic City.

“Secondhand smoke causes a variety of illnesses for everyone: emphysema, women have a 30% higher [risk] of getting breast cancer,” she said. “Forty-one thousand people die every year from secondhand smoke. And we can stop that if they pass that bill.”

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Advocates and some lawmakers have pushed for the ban for about two decades.

Sen. Shirley Turner (D-15) introduced a previous version of the bill in 2006 after the state exempted casinos and cigar lounges from a statewide smoking ban in indoor public facilities and workplaces. The state Senate unanimously passed it in 2007. However, it stalled in the General Assembly during that legislative session.

Lawmakers have attempted to revive the bill several times over the last 15 years, but a vote hasn’t occurred since then.

“We can’t get it going in the Senate now…,” Turner said. “There are legislators in the Senate, as well as in the Assembly, who believe that it’s more important that we protect the casino owners so that they can maintain or increase their profits. They would rather gamble with the health of their employees and the patrons there than to protect them from the harmful damage of cigarette smoking.”

State Sen. Vincent Polistina (R-2) said it’s unclear whether the timing will be right to pass the bill during the current session, which ends on Jan. 11.

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“I’m not sure if leadership is going to post the bill. That could be the only impediment, but I do believe that if it gets posted, it’ll get passed,” Polistina said.

“It’s pretty recognized now the impacts that these employees have had to deal with. And most of my colleagues understand that the exemption that is in place for the casinos no longer should be there — we should get rid of it. And we should give them the same healthy work environment and clean air that everybody else is entitled to,” he added.

Some advocates are upset that the Legislature fast-tracked a bill sponsored by outgoing Senate President Stephen Sweeny (D-3), including tax breaks for Atlantic City casinos. If legislators pass that bill, revenue from internet gambling and online sports betting would be exempt from calculations on how much money casinos in the Jersey shore town would pay to the municipality, the county, and Atlantic City’s school district.

According to the Associated Press, Sweeney on Monday said that state government leaders still need to discuss the smoking bill, citing concerns that casinos may lose business.

“Some people tell you you lose 16% of your business [if smoking is banned,]” Sweeney said.

Advocates said that’s not necessarily true.

“There are a few casinos in Pennsylvania that are voluntarily non-smoking,” said Lamont White, a Borgata employee. “Parx — which is the highest grossing casino in Pennsylvania — it’s non-smoking right now, and they’re doing great numbers.”

Gov. Phil Murphy recently signaled that he would sign the bill banning smoking in casinos if it came across his desk, according to the Associated Press.

“If you don’t see some movement soon, it probably is not going to happen in the lame duck session,” Polistina said. “But hopefully, we can pick it up when the new Legislature is sworn in after Jan. 11 and get it moving quickly. ”

During the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, casino patrons were not allowed to smoke indoors due to mask mandates. However, the Murphy administration lifted the temporary ban in July.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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