When New Jersey banned smoking in indoor, public places seven months ago, the carefully brokered legislative compromise exempted the floors of the state’s casinos. But officials in Atlantic City are looking to end that exception for cigarette puffers in the state’s gambling mecca.
The city’s City Council used the eve of Thursday’s 30th Anniversary of the Great American Smokeout to introduce an ordinance that would eliminate smoking in all public places within city limits, including gambling floors at the city’s 13 casinos.
Despite the sway of the casino lobby, which does not want to lose its exemption to the ban, the city council was unanimous in its introduction of the anti-smoking law Wednesday.
City Councilman Bruce Ward, a health care lawyer and a co-sponsor of the proposal, said he „became inspired by the cause“ while attending a recent anti-smoking rally.
„People were giving their testimony about their lives and how their lives were impacted. Legislation at the state level takes a long time,“ he said. „Meanwhile, we have a health hazard that continues.“ At the time the state law was passed, lawmakers in Trenton said they lacked the votes to get a smoking ban through the Legislature without exempting casinos. Several officials vowed to repeal the casino-exemption later, and Atlantic County Assemblyman Jim Whelan introduced a bill eliminating the loophole for casinos and race tracks. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers put a provision in the statewide ban allowing cities and towns to adopt tougher regulations on their own. Regina Carlson, president of that anti-smoking group NJGASP, said that provision in the state law seemed made for Atlantic City, where casino workers are exposed to secondhand smoke. Her group also has said casino patrons routinely smoke in nonsmoking areas without casino personnel telling them to stop.
The New Jersey Hospitality for Fairness Coalition, a group of restaurant and bar owners, sued the state in federal court on a claim that New Jersey was discriminating by forcing most hospitality businesses to go smoke-free while exempting others. The suit was later withdrawn.
Bob Gluck, a lawyer who represented the group, called the Atlantic City proposal a belated victory. „Certainly, what’s happening now in the ordinance is what we requested in the lawsuit,“ he said. The New Jersey Restaurant Association, however, said Atlantic City’s proposal takes away the flexibility of business owners to cater to their entire clientele – smokers and nonsmokers.
„While we’re not happy the ban wasn’t universal, we certainly weren’t begrudging the casinos for being successful in being able to maintain the flexibility to provide smoking customers with accommodations,“ said Dale Florio, a spokesman for the restaurateurs.
The statewide ban that went into effect April 15 also exempts cigar bars and simulcast racing sites.
Even if the ordinance is adopted by the city council and signed by the mayor, it would not go into effect until sometime next year. The council is to hear from the public at hearings scheduled for November 29 and December 13, and could consider the measure for final adoption on December 29. If adopted and signed by the mayor, it would take effect 20 days later.
A legal challenge from the casino industry is possible. Representatives of the Casino Association of New Jersey did not return calls for comment Thursday.