Atlantic City snuffs out casino smoking

April 23, 2008 3:49:11 PM PDT
Smoking will be prohibited on the gambling floor at all 11 Atlantic City casinos as of Oct. 15. Capping a battle that lasted more than a year, the City Council voted 9-0 Wednesday to end the last major loophole to a tough statewide ban on smoking in public buildings that had conspicuously exempted gambling halls.

But patrons will still be able to light up in unstaffed smoking lounges away from the table games and slot machines, if the individual casinos choose to build them.

Casino workers - many wearing T-shirts with the slogan "Nobody deserves to work in an ashtray" - burst into sustained applause when the votes were counted and chanted "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!"

"The employees of Atlantic City's casinos have hit a jackpot of their own tonight," said Dr. Arnold M. Baskies, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society in New Jersey and New York.

"Hardworking casino employees have been keeping Atlantic City's multibillion dollar casino industry on a roll, but have been gambling with their lives for far too long."

Mayor Scott Evans said he would sign the ordinance within 10 days.

"We're going to save lives with this," he said. "People are going to be able to come here and enjoy a nice, smoke-free environment."

Marybeth Litchholt, a dealer for 21 years at Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, said it's about time that casino workers' health is as valued as those of other workers in New Jersey.

"Because of cigarette smoke, I have sinus problems," she said.

"There are times when I'm working in the smoking section when I'm short of breath. You can just feel it in your lungs. My clothes stink."

More than two dozen states nationwide regulate smoking inside casinos, eight ban smoking altogether inside the gambling halls, and two others will impose a total ban starting in 2009, according to Karen Blumenfeld, policy director of the New Jersey Group Against Smoking Pollution.

In January 2007, 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.

But that hasn't worked. 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.

Joe Corbo, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, declined comment on the vote.

Kim Hoverman of Stone Creek in Cumberland County is a smoker who plans to take her business elsewhere.

"I don't think there should be separate areas," she said as she played a slot machine and puffed on a cigarette at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort. "I won't come here at all; I live closer to Philadelphia anyway. And I hate smoking outside."

Tom McGuigan of Philadelphia also was sampling the slots at the Taj Mahal. But he, too, will stick to slots parlors in his hometown once Atlantic City's smoking ban takes effect in October.

"I like to smoke," he said. "I'll do it in Philadelphia."

But Kim Hesse, a Caesars dealer and smoking opponent, predicts people like McGuigan will be the minority.

"There are lots more nonsmokers than smokers," she said. "I see it every day at my table; I'd say it's about 80-20 in favor of non-smokers."

When the ban takes effect, Hesse said, there will be some drop-off in the number of smokers who come to gamble, but she feels it will be insignificant.

"Think back just a few years ago: You could smoke in malls, you could smoke in restaurants, you could even smoke in hospitals," she said. "Now you can't, and it's become the norm. People are used to it. "

Perhaps the most surprising reaction from a smoker came from Patricia Mitchell of Washington, D.C. Shortly before the ban was enacted, she seemed resigned to it.

"It's for my own benefit," she said between pulls on a cigarette and pokes at a slot machine at the Taj Mahal. "I don't object to it because I need to cut down. And I need to get away from these machines."