Proposed Atlantic City Smoking Ban Splits Gamblers, Dealers

Atlantic City, New Jersey (AP) — For Bob Phelan, having a cigarette while gambling in an Atlantic City casino approaches a religious ritual.

„I come here to gamble, have a drink and a smoke,“ he said. „It’s the holy trinity.“

But people like casino dealer Adrien Huggins find working amid swirling cigarette smoke can be hellish.

„It’s hard to breathe,“ said the 21-year dealer at Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino. „It burns your eyes, your nostrils. I get sick a lot.“

Atlantic City plans to ban smoking on the entire gambling floor of all 11 of its casinos come October. But the debate still rages as to whether workers and nonsmoking gamblers‘ right to clean air outweighs a smoker’s right to light up at the tables or slot machines.

Hanging in the balance is the city’s USD 5 billion-a-year casino industry.

Two years ago, New Jersey banned smoking in most public indoor places. The one notable exception was casinos.

A year ago, Atlantic City tried to pass its own law banning smoking in the casinos, but backed down under pressure from the casino industry, which claimed the measure could cost it 20 percent of its revenue and mean the loss of as many as 3,400 jobs. The City Council enacted a compromise law restricting smoking to no more than 25 percent of the casino floor.

A year later, almost no one is happy. The smoking areas are still not walled-off and separated from nonsmoking areas, as last year’s law called for, and smoke still wafts throughout the casino floor. Smokers still feel persecuted and casinos still fret about losing business in an already bad economic climate, which is worsening with the growing success of slots parlors in nearby Pennsylvania and New York.

Atlantic City is trying again for a total smoking ban. An ordinance introduced Wednesday would prohibit all smoking on the casino floor, but would still let patrons light up inside enclosed, unstaffed smoking lounges, away from the tables and slot machines. The law is up for a final vote in two weeks.

Albert Bergendahl, a Harlingen, Tex. resident, said he will cross Atlantic City off his itinerary if he can’t smoke while he gambles.

„I hate that,“ he said. „I wouldn’t go to a casino if you couldn’t smoke there. I come from Texas, where you can smoke just about anywhere you want. It’s just as quick for me to fly to Jersey as it is to Vegas. So I’ll go to Vegas from now on.“

Las Vegas does not have a casino smoking ban; nor do the Pennsylvania slots parlors.

Atlantic City gambling houses have been reluctant to spend millions of dollars on the smoking enclosures called for in last year’s law, fearing the money would be wasted if a nationwide ban on casino smoking superseded the city’s law.

Joseph Corbo, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, said his group has long maintained that a smoking ban would hurt Atlantic City’s ability to compete with out-of-state casinos were smoking is permitted, and that jobs will be lost as casino business falls off.

But he said the casinos are willing to comply with the new law as long as they have enough time to plan for and build the smoking lounges.

The casinos would not be required to build smoking lounges; they have the option to do so under the proposed law that would take effect Oct. 15.