Orga Boone was eager to play slots at just-opened Rivers Casino Portsmouth in southeast Virginia, but her first visit was shorter than the drive there.
Tobacco smoke throughout the gaming floor of Virginia’s first freestanding casino, which opened Jan. 23, forced her to leave after about 20 minutes.
“How do they allow the casino to have smoking when everything else doesn’t?” asked Boone, a former smoker who lives in Suffolk, Virginia. “That doesn’t make sense to me.”
Casino employees, health experts, and players in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and elsewhere are asking the same question as they press lawmakers to end measures exempting casinos from smoking bans that apply to almost all other workplaces and facilities open to the public.
On Feb. 13 after years of inaction on earlier proposals, a New Jersey Senate committee conducted the state’s first hearing on a bill to ban smoking on Atlantic City gaming floors. In Pennsylvania, a similar proposal, also blocked in previous legislative sessions, is expected to pass at least in the state House, a proponent predicted.
A dwindling percentage of smokers nationwide and impressive gaming revenue in the wake of COVID closures have shredded the casino-industry argument that smoking bans lead to job cuts, lower profits, and less tax revenue for states and municipalities.
Removal of the New Jersey exemption would have an outsized effect, in keeping with the state’s history of setting trends for the U.S. gaming industry: first regulated casino outside Nevada, first to approve online casinos, and the successful lawsuit that opened full-fledged sports betting to all states. Twenty states and three Louisiana cities ban smoking in commercial gaming facilities, but thus far Colorado is the only state to remove a gaming-floor exemption from its clean-indoor-air law. That came in 2008, tightening a 2006 law.
“All eyes are on Atlantic City,” Cynthia Hallett, president and CEO of the nonprofit Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, told CDC Gaming Reports. “Even Las Vegas is watching.” She was among more than 30 witnesses at the Feb. 13 legislative hearing in Trenton and acknowledged that she spoke to a “friendly” panel, led by Sen. Joseph Vitale, a primary sponsor of the bill.
Opponents of the smoking ban, either speaking in person or submitting written statements, included Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small Sr., various chambers of commerce, construction unions, and the New Jersey Association of Area Agencies on Aging. The Casino Association of New Jersey did not have a witness at the hearing but wrote, “No one is more committed to the well-being of our employees and that is why we are so committed to opposing implementation of this legislation at this time,” adding that in a weakening economy, a ban would endanger thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue.
Those submitting comments supporting the ban included the Atlantic City Council, several health organizations and health experts, the president of ASHRAE (formerly American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers), and casino dealers. Gaming consultant and former casino CEO Richard Schuetz wrote, “I am familiar with scare tactics employed by casinos to try to cling to outdated business practices. And I write with an urgent message to New Jersey’s casino executives: Now is the time to get rid of indoor smoking, once and for all. You broke revenue records in 2021, exceeded pre-pandemic in-person revenue in 2022, and most definitely are not struggling.”
At least 148 tribal casinos, which are not subject to state laws, and some commercial casinos have voluntarily banned smoking since reopening from COVID closures. Among those is Parx Casino in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s revenue leader for in-person play and about 90 minutes from Atlantic City’s Boardwalk.
“COVID brought to light that when we’re indoors, it’s shared air,” Hallett said in an interview. “It really changed people’s perception. They wanted to feel that they were going into an environment that was safe.”
She said the conversion to a smoke-free gaming floor takes about three months, allowing for time to rid the area of pollutants and other effects and to provide outside accommodations for smokers.
“This is a real opportunity to implement a common-sense public-health policy that’s going to save lives, that’s popular with the public, and that will be good for business if the casinos embrace it,” Hallett said.
The Associated Press reported that a bipartisan majority in both branches of the New Jersey Legislature are sponsoring or co-sponsoring identical bills to ban smoking in casinos. Passage would require positive votes in committees and on the floor of each chamber before the bill would go to Gov. Phil Murphy, who has promised to sign it.
A key question is whether Assembly and Senate leaders will allow the bill to be put to a vote. Daphne Retter, chief of staff for Pennsylvania state Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Pittsburgh, noted that when smoking was banned in Pennsylvania casinos for several months in 2020 and 2021 because of mask mandates, revenue from in-person slot and table game play barely blipped, even with intermittent closures of individual casinos and other anti-COVID measures that included fewer slot machines and table-game spots and no alcohol service on the gaming floor.
“It’s clear that people’s habits have changed,” Retter said.
Frankel has sponsored multiple bills to ban smoking in Pennsylvania casinos and he plans to introduce a bill again this year with bipartisan support. Retter predicted it will pass the House.
She and Hallett both cited the growing impact of casino employees in the campaign for smoke-free gaming floors. Atlantic City dealers formed CEASE (Casino Employees Against Smoking’s Effects), which has rallied in New Jersey and taken its message to Nevada, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Kansas.
Mike Danay, a dealer at Live! Philadelphia and a CEASE member, said passage of the New Jersey bill would “bring awareness across the river to Pennsylvania.” Live! Philadelphia has voluntarily banned smoking at table games, but still allows it in some slot areas, he said. The city’s third casino, Rivers Philadelphia, voluntarily banned smoking for several months last year, but reinstated it.
In response to the public outcry about smoking at Rivers Portsmouth in Virginia, that casino established smoking areas covering about half the floor.
That’s not enough for Orga Boone, who went back to Rivers once, but only because her mother wanted to go. Even then, they didn’t stay long.
“I couldn’t stand it,” Boone said. “I just can’t understand why they let people smoke.”