AC split over proposed smoking ban

April 11, 2008 12:18:17 PM PDT
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.

How well the city's $5 billion-a-year casino industry does in the coming years could hang in the balance.

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 withering pressure from the casino industry, which claimed the measure could cost them 20 percent of their revenue and mean the loss of as many as 3,400 jobs. The City Council then enacted a compromise law restricting smoking to no more than 25 percent of the casino floor.

A year later, though, almost no one is happy. The smoking areas are still not walled-off and separated from nonsmoking areas, as last year's law had 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 being worsened by 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 on 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.

If it passes, people like Eileen Eisenberg of Richboro, Pa. will kiss Atlantic City goodbye for good.

"I think it's going to kill Atlantic City," she said between pokes at a slot machine at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort. "It's going to take people away from the machines, and they won't come back. I don't understand why you can't just keep it the way it is."

Likewise, Albert Bergendahl, a Harlingen, Tex. resident, 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.

The law passed last year by the Atlantic City Council required casinos to build walled-off, separately ventilated enclosures where gamblers could continue to smoke. But the gambling houses have been reluctant to spend millions of dollars on the enclosures, fearing that there might be a nationwide ban on casino smoking soon that would supersede Atlantic City's law, and waste the money they would have spent.

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.

"I can understand them not wanting to spend all that money if somebody's going to come along and change the rules all of a sudden," said Cliff Beavers, a longtime Trump Plaza dealer.

He said the current ban on smoking in 75 percent of the casino floor is an improvement. But, he acknowledged, "We already have a 75-25 situation, and smoke doesn't know where 25 ends."

Phelan, the former New Jersey resident now living in Pawley's Island, S.C., said a total ban would be going too far.

"I understand nonsmokers' rights," he said. "But this is way beyond what's reasonable."