The New Jersey smoking ban currently includes an exemption for casinos in Atlantic City. That might change someday in some way, but whether that will happen soon is currently somewhat of a gamble.
A bill in the state’s legislature to repeal that exemption has more support than any of its previous incarnations. It might not be enough to get it over the finish line this year, though.
More support for a New Jersey smoking ban change
Currently, the law gives AC casinos the freedom to choose to allow smoking on up to a quarter of their gaming floors. They’re free to have a smaller smoking area or ban it outright themselves if they wish.
The bill, S264, originally had the backing of six NJ senators. The bill’s sponsors cite the profitability of Atlantic City casinos and the health risks to casino workers as their motivation for proposing the change.
This is the second consecutive year in which such a bill has surfaced in the NJ legislature. Gov. Phil Murphy has gone on the record saying he would sign such a bill if the legislature passes one.
The bill has firm support from unions for casino workers. Last December, union members marched on the state capitol to demand its passage. They pointed to the casinos’ performances during a temporary smoking ban as proof that casinos would not suffer significantly if the exemption were repealed.
Casinos didn’t struggle during temporary ban
For over a year, an executive order from Murphy banned smoking inside casinos. The purpose of the order was to limit the transmission of the COVID-19 virus within the facilities. While casinos were not open that entire time and dealing with capacity restrictions for a good portion of that year as well, their bottom lines did not see a huge drop due to the smoking ban.
In fact, AC casinos saw an 11% uptick in revenue in the first quarter of 2021 as compared to the same time period in 2019. Proponents have said that is because some casino guests actually feel more comfortable in smoke-free environments.
Casino operators disagree, however. They have said that they could lose up to 16% of their business if customers are unable to smoke anywhere indoors. It’s unclear how much sway they will hold over members of the state legislature if the bill comes up for a vote on the NJ Senate floor.
For them, it’s a tightwire act of trying not to offend either the casino lobby or unions. While many members have kept their sentiments close to the chest so far, others have chosen sides.
Former governor joins sponsors
Late last month, NJ Sen. Richard Codey joined the bill’s sponsors. When he was the state’s governor, New Jersey enacted the law that bans indoor smoking in almost every other venue in the state.
The bill is currently in the NJ Senate’s Health, Human Services, and Senior Citizens Committee. It’s unclear whether it will proceed to the full membership. Both Codey and the bill’s original sponsor, Sen. Robert Singer, are on that committee.
If the Senate passes it, NJ Assembly Speaker Craig J. Coughlin, says his body will consider the measure. Coughlin’s willingness may prove a moot point, though.
Last year, the bill never made it out of a Senate committee. That might be its fate again this year, despite the increased public support. This year’s activity might prove merely a building block toward future enactment.