Atlantic City Council to try again to enact full casino smoking ban

Atlantic City – Year two, round two.

City Council will again attempt to outlaw smoking in city gaming halls at next week’s meeting as last year’s partial ban approaches its first anniversary.

„It was somewhat self-executing in that the one-year anniversary is almost here and little has been done to comply with the partial ban,“ Councilman Bruce Ward said Friday.

Ward co-sponsored a proposed full ban in February 2007 before officials amended the ordinance in the face of intense opposition from top officials from the resort’s 11 casinos. The new measure allowed smoking in 25 percent of each casino, prompting arguments from non-smoking advocates, who said the casinos dragged their feet to enact the ordinance.

„I never felt that the 75/25 was a permanent solution,“ Ward said. „It did provide – I hate to use the term – breathing room for casinos.“

Mark Juliano, chief executive officer of Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc., said City Council’s push for a complete smoking ban is part of a trend that could spread to casinos nationwide in the next few years.

„It doesn’t surprise me,“ Juliano said. „I do believe that eventually casinos all over will be smoke-free. I don’t think anybody thought that the smoking enclosures would be a permanent exemption.“

As part of Atlantic City’s current partial casino smoking ban, the gaming halls must build enclosed smoking rooms or lounges equipped with separate ventilation systems to keep smoke from drifting to other parts of the casino.

However, construction on the smoking rooms has languished. As of last month, the state Department of Community Affairs had not yet given approval for any of the casinos to begin building the smoking lounges. The DCA said the casinos have been slow in responding to the department’s questions about the smoking rooms, while the Casino Association of New Jersey claims the process has moved at a normal pace.

Casinos fear that a complete smoking ban could be enacted after they build the smoking rooms. If that’s the case, they would then have to tear down the rooms, costing them millions of dollars in wasted construction.

„If they’re going to do it, they should do it now. It wouldn’t make sense if they do it after we build the enclosures,“ Juliano said of the timing of City Council’s possible total smoking ban.

Ward said he and Councilman Eugene Robinson, who co-sponsored the first ordinance with Ward last year, have solidified two other approval votes on the nine-member City Council.

„And I think we have some leaners,“ he added.

Councilman John Schultz characterizes himself as one member on the fence, but his comments seem to tell a different story.

„We should do it the day after Vegas does it,“ he said in a phone interview Friday. „I mean, I agree with (the non-smoking advocates) 100 percent, but then again, you have to look at our competition.“

Casinos blame the partial smoking ban as a major factor in Atlantic City’s 5.7 percent decline in gaming revenue last year. Juliano predicted the impact could be more severe if a full smoking ban is approved – especially if the rival Pennsylvania slot parlors continue not to have any smoking restrictions.

But discussions of legislation to ban smoking in Connecticut and Pennsylvania casinos has perked the interest of city officials and full-ban proponents. A legal opinion issued earlier this month in Connecticut may allow lawmakers to extend a state smoking ban to the American-Indian casinos, which claim that smoking restrictions would be a threat to tribal sovereignty. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania lawmakers have been debating legislation 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 discussions are not enough to sway Council President William Marsh, who still has concerns about the economic downturn and a ban’s potential effect on revenue and casino jobs. But he said he does intend to look into drafting amendments to enforce the construction of the new smoking rooms.

„More teeth have to be put into (the current law) as far as the exact start and finish of these smoking rooms,“ said Marsh, who was unaware that the ordinance was being introduced next week. „I’m very disappointed about (the delay). A deal is a deal is a deal.“

But it’s not the deal everyone was happy with, or settled for.

Michele Holcomb, a spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society, said the effort to pass a full ban never ceased.

„They’ve never stopped contacting me,“ Councilman Ward said with a laugh. „If you’re a dealer that doesn’t smoke or you’re a part of one of these (anti-smoking) groups, why would you let go of someone who supports you?“