New Jersey casino operators moan that smoking restrictions in Atlantic City caused many of their best customers to flee to the smoker-friendly casinos of Pennsylvania and Connecticut. However, a legal opinion issued in Connecticut may allow lawmakers to extend a state smoking ban to the American-Indian casinos.
Tribal casinos, though, claim that smoking restrictions would be a threat to tribal sovereignty.
Also, Pennsylvania lawmakers have been debating legislation this week that would make casinos completely smoke-free or limit smoking to only 25 percent of the gaming space, similar to Atlantic City’s casino smoking restrictions.
The New Jersey Casino Association, a trade group representing Atlantic City’s 11 gaming halls, says smoking restrictions in Connecticut and Pennsylvania could help ease the competitive disadvantage they believe the city has been facing.
„One of our industry’s primary concerns with the current smoking-ban circumstances is the lack of a level playing field across all gaming jurisdictions,“ said Joseph A. Corbo Jr., association president. „This results in a situation in which gaming customers who smoke, which is a significant sector of our market, choose to patronize casinos where they can smoke, including the Pennsylvania racinos and the tribal casinos in Connecticut.“
Atlantic City is approaching the first anniversary of a local law that bans smoking on 75 percent of the casino floor. Casinos have complied with the ordinance by setting aside smoking areas. The next step is for them to build enclosed smoking rooms or lounges equipped with separate ventilation systems to prevent smoke from drifting to nonsmoking sections.
Casinos argue that the smoking restrictions, combined with extra competition from Pennsylvania’s new slot parlors, caused a 5.7 percent decline in Atlantic City gaming revenue last year. It was the first such drop in the city’s 30-year history of casino gambling.
Anti-smoking advocates reject the casinos’ assertion that the partial smoking ban has cut into business. They point to the city’s 3 percent increase in table game winnings in 2007, although a nearly 9 percent slump in slot revenue resulted in the 5.7 percent overall decline.
„So far, no empirical-based data has been set forth that isolates the Atlantic City smoking restrictions as a source for a downturn in revenues,“ said Karen Blumenfeld of the New Jersey Group Against Smoking Pollution, known as GASP. „The fact that table games revenues haven’t changed shows that people are not going elsewhere for table games, like Connecticut, even though they have the choice.“
Atlantic City gaming executives anticipate some form of a nationwide casino smoking ban in coming years. In the meantime, they are hoping that lawmakers in Connecticut and Pennsylvania will enact a ban in those states even faster to help protect their business.
In Connecticut, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal released a legal opinion Thursday supporting an extension of the state’s 2003 smoking ban for bars and restaurants to the tribal Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos. Blumenthal argued that the ban would be upheld by the courts, but urged Connecticut lawmakers and tribes to reach an agreement.
Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun have vowed to fight a state casino smoking ban, claiming it would infringe on their right for self-governance on tribal territory. „We’ve strongly stated in the past, it’s clearly a tribal law or regulation,“ said Arthur Henick, a spokesman for the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, operator of Foxwoods. „We have the right to set the rules on the reservation.“
Pennsylvania may enact a smoking ban as early as May, but first, lawmakers must decide whether to make casinos totally smokefree or allow smoking on 25 percent of the gaming floor. A Pennsylvania Senate and House conference committee held hearings this week for testimony on a proposed smoking ban.
Atlantic City casinos aren’t safe from a possible total smoking ban. Govrnor Jon S. Corzine supports moving ahead with a full ban, although a bill to completely snuff out casino smoking has languished in the state Assembly.