New Jersey AG, casino workers union ask judge to dismiss anti-smoking lawsuit targeting Atlantic City casinos

April 29, 2024 8:20 PM
Photo: Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights (courtesy)/Atlantic City casino workers protest the New Jersey law that exempts casinos from the state's indoor smoking ban, April 5, 2024.
  • Wayne Parry, Associated Press
April 29, 2024 8:20 PM
  • Wayne Parry, Associated Press

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — Atlantic City’s main casino workers union and the New Jersey attorney general on Monday asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit brought by a different union that seeks to ban smoking at the city’s nine casinos.

Story continues below

Local 54 of the Unite Here union said in a filing in state Superior Court that a third of the 10,000 workers it represents would be at risk of losing their jobs and the means to support their families if smoking were banned.

Currently, smoking is allowed on 25% of the casino floor. 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 brought earlier this 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.

New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin, representing Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and the state health department, said the state’s indoor smoking law does not deny any group of people equal protection under the law “and does not infringe on any purported constitutional right to safety,” urging the court to dismiss it.

Nancy Erika Smith, the lawyer who filed the lawsuit, reacted incredulously to the request by Local 54.

“I have never seen a union fight against the health and safety of their members, not once,” she said. “Luckily, Unite’s economic arguments, while false, have absolutely no relevance to the constitutional question at hand.”

Donna DeCaprio is president of Local 54, which represents hotel workers, beverage servers, baggage handlers, public area cleaners and other workers at the nine casinos.

“We support the health and safety of our members, and believe that improvements to the current work environment must be made,” she said Monday. “A balance needs to be reached that will both protect worker health and preserve good jobs.”

DeCaprio said a total smoking ban would be “catastrophic” for Atlantic City, adding that between 50 to 72% of all gambling revenue won from in-person gamblers comes from smoking sections.

The union endorses legislation introduced earlier this year that would keep the current 25% limit of the casino floor on which smoking can occur.

But it would allow smoking in unenclosed areas of the casino floor that contain slot machines and are designated as smoking areas that are more than 15 feet away from table games staffed by live dealers. It also would allow the casinos to offer smoking in enclosed, separately ventilated smoking rooms with the proviso that no worker can be assigned to work in such a room against their will.

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.

“A total smoking ban would place thousands of jobs at risk, endangering the wages, health and welfare benefits and retirement benefits of Local 54 members and their families,” the union wrote in its court filing.

It noted that in 2008, when Atlantic City’s City Council imposed a short-lived total smoking ban, casino revenues fell by 19.8%, within the first week, leading to the enactment of the current 25% smoking area on the casino floors.

These workers, including many table games dealers, say that going smoke-free would actually attract enough customers to more than offset the loss of smokers who go elsewhere.

Nicole Vitola, a Borgata dealer and one of the leaders of the anti-smoking push, accused Local 54 of being the same as casino management.

“Instead of fighting for the health and safety of workers, Local 54 is battling in a court of law to allow casinos to keep poisoning their members with toxic secondhand smoke,” she said.