Atlantic City Casino Smoking Takes Center Stage Following New Union Contracts

With a potentially catastrophic strike at Atlantic City casinos avoided, gaming industry officials and the state’s top lawmakers are now focusing their attention on the divisive debate regarding the ongoing permittance of indoor smoking.

A gambler plays a slot machine while smoking a cigarette at Ocean Casino Resort. The days of Atlantic City casino smoking could be numbered. (Image: AP)

Atlantic City casinos are allowed to allocate up to 25% of their gaming space for tobacco smoking. But a movement to end the 16-year loophole that was given to the casinos when New Jersey passed its Smoke-Free Air Act in 2006 continues to gain momentum.

The latest count shows that half of the 40-member New Jersey Senate and 43 of the 80 state representatives in the General Assembly are sponsoring or co-sponsoring legislation to ban indoor casino smoking in Atlantic City. Senate Bill 264 and Assembly Bill 2151 both set out to eliminate smoking on gaming floors.

The identical bills already have enough support for the measures to pass their respective legislative chambers. But the statutes have made little progress since their introductions early this year.

Senate Leader Explains Delay

New Jersey Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) greatly differs in opinion from his predecessor, former state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Cumberland), when it comes to indoor casino smoking.

Sweeney was a loyal advocate of Atlantic City’s gaming industry during his two decades in office. Following his shocking 2021 election defeat 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 without such savings, which are projected to save the casinos $55 million this year alone and between $30 million to $65 million a year through 2026, as many as four casinos would be in peril of closing. Sweeney urged the state to leave Atlantic City smoking alone as he departed Trenton. Scutari says it should act.

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

“There’s more to it than just, ‘Do I think people should smoke indoors?’” the Senate president explained. “I do not. I don’t like smoke. I’ve never been a smoker. But there are economic things, there are other items at work. We’ve got to work with the industry and with the [anti-smoking] advocates.”

The industry argues that a smoking ban would greatly hurt play. A study commissioned by the Casino Association of New Jersey, the lobbying arm of the nine casinos, found that an indoor smoking ban would slash annual gross gaming revenue (GGR) by as much as 20%-25%. That would lead to a reduction in around 2,500 jobs, industry leaders say.

Such claims are disputed by the anti-smoking 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 Senate President, Scutari gets to decide which bills passed through committees are taken up on the full chamber floor. The New Jersey Legislature is set to reconvene from its summer recess in September.

Strike Strikeout

Atlantic City casino officials managed to avoid a strike at its resorts just hours before this past weekend’s July 4th celebrations.

Union leaders of Unite Here Local 54 were threatening to initiate a walkout at Borgata, Caesars, Harrah’s, Tropicana, and Hard Rock during the Independence Day weekend. But the gaming industry and union reached new collective bargaining agreements late last week.

The union said it’s “the best contract we’ve ever had,” though specific terms were not disclosed. Unite Here had been seeking substantial pay raises for its members.

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