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Lawsuit May Force New Jersey Legislators Into Negotiations Over Casino Smoking

Written By Derek Helling | Updated:
person lights up cigarette

As many gamblers know, if you bluff, you have to be ready to follow through. That scenario is a succinct analogy for the current state of a struggle over the legality of smoking inside Atlantic City casinos.

Casino workers have levied a challenge to New Jersey’s Clean Indoor Air Act due to an exemption in the law that allows for such smoking. The possible ramifications of success in that lawsuit may be significant enough to force state legislators’ hands on the issue.

Atlantic City casino workers take action on casino smoking

As legislation to alter or revoke the casino exemption to the Clean Indoor Air Act has stalled in Trenton, some casino workers have played one of the only cards they have. According to Wayne Parry of the Associated Press, a new lawsuit asserts that the Act violates multiple legal standards.

An Atlantic City ordinance currently permits casinos to permit smoking on up to 25% of their gaming floor space. In 2023, there was momentum to pass a law circumventing that ordinance but the legislation ultimately failed.

Behind this lawsuit, according to Parry, are United Auto Workers (UAW) and an organization for casino workers called CEASE (Casino Employees Against Smoking Effects). The UAW represents workers at Bally’s, Caesars, and the Tropicana casinos in Atlantic City.

Among the arguments that the lawsuit makes is that the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution ensures that casino workers should receive the same protections from on-the-job health hazards that workers in other industries receive. As defendants, the suit names New Jersey’s current governor Phil Murphy, and the acting health commissioner for New Jersey Dr. Kaitlan Baston.

Murphy, for his part, has supported the push to repeal the exemption. There are reasons why such a measure may never reach his desk, though.

The other side of the casino smoking issue

While many casino workers tout eliminating smoking in casinos as a health and safety measure, others in New Jersey think that measure could do more harm than good. That includes unions representing casino workers in New Jersey.

Parry also reported that a representative for Unite Here warned about the economic impact that eliminating smoking from casino floors may have on those properties in Atlantic City. Casino executives have also shared their opinion that such a move would harm their bottom lines.

To try to give everyone a remedy that they might be able to live with but nobody would exactly celebrate, there have been some proposals that fall short of CEASE and the UAW’s wishes. One would maintain the current 25% standard but require that the smoking areas be at least 15 feet away from any areas where live dealers are working.

Other suggestions have included allowing smoking in enclosed areas with separate ventilation systems. There has also been a proposal that would give casino workers the ability to opt out of working in any area where smoking is allowed.

However, many casino workers have nonetheless pushed for a full and simple repeal of the casino floor exemption. Because of the potential ramifications of success for this lawsuit, more earnest compromises may surface soon.

Conversations on the issue may pick up speed

The reason this litigation is turning a lot of heads in Trenton is because of the consequences of a victory for the petitioners. A court decision in their favor may not selectively repeal the exemption for casino floors in the law. It could threaten the New Jersey Clean Indoor Air Act of 2006 in its entirety.

Should that be the case, a statewide statute on indoor smoking would no longer exist in New Jersey. Such restrictions would be mostly left to city and/or county governments in the meantime while the state works to enact a new statute.

That would probably represent a patchwork of varying standards throughout the state. Leaders in Trenton would likely prefer to avoid such a scenario, even for a short time. As a result, if they believe this lawsuit has a decent chance of success, they might reach out to CEASE and UAW leadership to resume conversations about what it would take for them to drop the suit.

CEASE/UAW leaders would then have the choice to stick to their assertion that nothing short of a complete repeal of the casino exemption will suffice or work with other interests. These workers have played their cards to back up their bluff. They now wait to see how everyone else at the table will respond.

Photo by AP Photo/Wayne Parry
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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is the assistant managing editor of PlayUSA. Helling focuses on breaking news, including finance, regulation, and technology in the gaming industry. Helling completed his journalism degree at the University of Iowa and resides in Chicago

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