Atlantic City: Workers in casino smoking lawsuit decry ‘poisonous’ workplace; state stresses taxes

May 13, 2024 3:08 PM
Photo: Lucky Business/
  • Wayne Parry, Associated Press
May 13, 2024 3:08 PM
  • Wayne Parry, Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — A group of Atlantic City casino workers asked a judge Monday to ban smoking in the gambling halls, citing the toxic effects of working in a “poisonous” atmosphere, while the state said ending smoking could jeopardize a half-billion-dollar pot of money for senior citizens and the disabled.

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Superior Court Judge Patrick Bartels did not issue a ruling after both sides presented their case but said he aims to do so “as quickly as possible.”

A ruling banning smoking in the nine casinos would be a seismic event for the city’s gambling industry, whose core business — money won from in-person gamblers — still has not returned to where it was before the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020.

But it would be an equally impactful change for workers who say they are sick of having to breathe other people’s smoke in order to make a living, and who cite illnesses they attribute to secondhand smoke, including bronchitis, asthma and other respiratory ailments, including several cases of cancer.

Whether to ban smoking is one of the most controversial issues not only in Atlantic City casinos, but in other states where workers have expressed concern about secondhand smoke. They are waging similar campaigns in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Kansas and Virginia.

Currently, smoking is allowed on 25% of the casino floor in Atlantic City. But those areas are not contiguous, and the practical effect is that secondhand smoke is present in varying degrees throughout the casino floor.

A lawsuit filed last month by the United Auto Workers, which represents dealers at the Bally’s, Caesars and Tropicana casinos, seeks to overturn New Jersey’s indoor smoking law, which bans it in virtually every workplace except casinos.

“The purpose of the act is to protect workers from sickness and death,” said Nancy Erika Smith, the attorney who brought the lawsuit. It “is not to put money in the casinos’ pockets. We are seeking to end a special law which does a favor for casinos and seriously harms workers.”

She also raised the issues of equal protection under the law, and what she called a Constitutional right to safety.

But Deputy Attorney General Robert McGuire, representing Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and the state’s acting health commissioner, said there is no such constitutional right. Murphy has said he will sign a smoking ban into law, but has recently expressed concern about the casinos’ economic arguments.

Citizens have the freedom to pursue safety and happiness, but nowhere does the government guarantee those things to them as a right, McGuire said.

McGuire also repeatedly cited the state’s Casino Revenue Fund, into which 8% of the casinos’ revenue is paid to fund programs for senior citizens and the disabled. In fiscal year 2024, he said, $526 million from the fund will be spend on such programs.

The implication was that this money would be at risk if smoking is banned and the casinos do less business as smokers take their money elsewhere.

Smoking opponents dispute that the casinos would lose business, citing a study showing casinos that ended smoking did better financially without it.

Smith said the argument that “people should be poisoned” so that casinos can do well and generate more state tax revenue is “repugnant” and “shocking.”

Seth Ptasiewicz, an attorney for casino workers who want to keep the current smoking policy, said steep economic declines have followed the imposition of smoking bans in several places, including Atlantic City, which tried it in 2008, only to quickly reverse course after a 19.8% decline in casino revenue in two weeks.

These workers “understand that (smoking) is a part of the job, and they accept it,” he said, adding, “No job is 100% safe.”

One of his clients, Local 54 of the Unite Here union, said in court papers it fears as much as a third of its 10,000 members could lose their jobs if smoking is banned.

Attorney Christopher Porrino, representing the Casino Association of New Jersey, said the state Legislature has had nearly a half-century to change Atlantic City’s smoking policy, and has opted not to.

“In a few weeks it will be 46 years since the first casino opened in Atlantic City,” he said. “From that day forward and every day since, patrons of casinos have continuously smoked.”

The anti-smoking workers are in the fourth year of a campaign to end smoking in Atlantic City’s casinos that previously relied on political efforts to get lawmakers to change the law.

But those efforts have yet to bear fruit. Shortly after a bill that would end smoking advanced out of a state Senate committee, other lawmakers introduced a competing bill that would continue to allow smoking on 25% of the casino floor, but would reconfigure where it is allowed. No employee would be forced to work in a smoking area against their will, under the bill.

Neither measure has been acted on in months.