Atlantic City Casino Bill Going Up In Smoke?

Countless bills are moving in Trenton this month under a typical “lame duck” session of the New Jersey Legislature as the new group of lawmakers gets ready to convene in January.

But one bill, S1878, which would eliminate the Atlantic City casino industry‘s exemption from an indoor smoking ban, has yet to be advanced by state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, the powerful Democrat and longest-serving Senate president in state history.

Sweeney lost his seat in shocking fashion last month to a little-known truck driver, and he has expressed reservations about ending the ban. Now what has smoking ban advocates riled up is the fact that last week, the non-partisan state Office of Legislative Services posted its analysis of the impact that a casino tax-break bill that cleared a state Senate committee on Monday would have on state tax collections.

“We expect the bill will reduce the [payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILOT] payment by $55 million in [calendar year] 2022, and probably between $30 million and $65 million in subsequent years through 2026,” the office wrote. “Although the bill requires the owners of casino gaming property to make payments to the city of $5 million per year in calendar years 2024 through 2026, it is unlikely that these payments will wholly offset the municipal revenues loss resulting from application of the new PILOT formula.”

Tax revenue an issue or not?

Smoking ban advocates paired that announcement with a statement back in June from the Casino Association of New Jersey that read, “Atlantic City casinos cater to a diverse and dynamic cross section of guests, including both smokers and non-smokers. Banning smoking permanently would have long-term financial implications for the industry and the region. Going completely nonsmoking would place Atlantic City casinos at a competitive disadvantage with other nearby casinos that allow smoking. A smoking ban would have a significant adverse effect on Atlantic City, resulting in a decline in customers which would cause job loss, and ultimately a decline in tax revenue.”

Americans for Non-Smokers Rights then offered its own take on the issue, writing, “As they push for legislation that would shield online gaming and sports betting revenue from the PILOT formula and cut taxes for many of the nine casinos in the city, concerns about tax revenue for the region have suddenly vanished.

“Regardless of what happens with the PILOT bill, it’s time to stop taking seriously Atlantic City casinos’ concerns that local governments would lose tax revenue if lawmakers were to finally close the casino smoking loophole. Plus, we’ve seen this argument debunked repeatedly, most recently when Atlantic City experienced 11% higher earnings while operating smoke-free in the first quarter of 2021 when compared to the same timeframe in 2019.”

Origin of smoking limitations in NJ

The 2007 New Jersey Smoke-Free Air Act eliminated indoor smoking for nearly all establishments throughout the state, but granted an exemption for Atlantic City’s casinos. Subsequently, Atlantic City passed an ordinance restricting casino smoking to no more than 25% of the gaming floor.

The pending bill to eliminate the exemption is sponsored by Senate Democrats Loretta Weinberg (a “lame duck” herself), Shirley Turner, Joseph Vitale, Teresa Ruiz, and Patrick Diegnan, as well as Atlantic County Republican Vince Polistina.

“I am pleased to have the support of my colleagues in extending the smoking ban to casinos and correcting this omission that increases health risks to casino workers and patrons,” Turner wrote in a statement in June. “When the legislature passed the Smoke-Free Air Act, it was a step toward ensuring that all New Jerseyans have access to safe, healthy, smoke-free workplaces. We know that exposure to secondhand smoke presents serious health risks, and it is time that casino workers and non-smoking patrons have the same protection from this danger as other indoor workers and customers enjoy in the state.”

The Smoke Free Atlantic City advocacy group wrote this spring that “the trend towards smoke-free — 23 states, more than 160 tribal gaming properties and nearly 1,100 casinos nationwide do not permit smoking indoors — continues to gain momentum. New Jersey risks falling behind the trend if casinos revert back to a pre-pandemic world and allow indoor smoking. It’s time to recognize the overwhelming support for smoke-free casinos and that customers now have an expectation of health and safety when they visit a public place.”

Casinos already snuffing out smoke?

The casino association has replied that steps to protect the health of casino workers and customers are already being implemented.

“We understand that air quality is extremely important to the health and safety of our valued employees and guests, which is why we have invested in state-of-the-art air filtration systems that circulate fresh air,” association officials said. “With the onset of the pandemic, independent experts reviewed our air filtration systems, confirming their effectiveness in exchanging large volumes of air and keeping the air quality fresh and clean.”

More than a dozen state Senate and Assembly committees are scheduled to meet on Thursday, and smoking-ban advocates are prepared to greet them. A 9:30 a.m. rally has been scheduled by the Casino Employees Against Smoking’s (Harmful) Effects group at the War Memorial in Trenton.

“Why are Governor Murphy and legislative leaders trying to quietly rush through a bill that gives tax breaks to casinos while leaving us behind? We cannot keep breathing secondhand smoke for eight hours a day at our workplace,” CEASE wrote in a statement. “There’s a bill that Governor Murphy says he supports ready to be advanced in Trenton. He and the legislature need to get their priorities straight and treat [the bill] with the same urgency as the PILOT bill. Let’s close the casino loophole once and for all, so that we don’t have to choose between our health and a paycheck.”

Two eastern Pennsylvania casinos, Parx and Mount Airy Casino Resort, have elected to continue a COVID-era ban on smoking, while the city of Philadelphia has imposed the same restriction on the Rivers and Live! casinos in that locale.

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