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Fighting Atlantic City’s Smoking Ban: Workers’ Health for Profits

Legislation pending in the New Jersey State House would end Atlantic City’s long-held casino exemption from a statewide indoor smoking ban. . Around 2,500 casino workers united to lobby for the ban. And the governor of the state also supports it.

“If a bill came to my desk, I would sign it,” Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said in December.

The casino industry is fighting the effort, saying it is worried about the potential impact of a ban on jobs and profits.

The move could cost around 2,500 jobs, according to a February study by Spectrum Gaming Group, commissioned by the Casino Association of New Jersey. A complete smoking ban could slash gaming revenue by 20% to 25%, according to analysis by John DeCree, gaming stock analyst for CBRE. Smokers make up 21% of Atlantic City players and traditionally generate higher profits because smokers sit longer and spend more money, according to the Spectrum report.

“My roulette, blackjack and slot machine in the smoking sections pay out 50% more than my non-smoking games,” Joe Lupo, president of Hard Rock Atlantic City and president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, told CNBC. . “It is a fact.”

Lupo said many Hard Rock employees did not support changing smoking restrictions because they were worried about their livelihoods, and he insisted opponents of casino smoking were in the minority. but attracted all the attention. Nearly 22,000 full-time and part-time workers are employed by Atlantic City casinos, according to the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement.

“The loudest barking dogs are heard,” he said.

Tammy Brady speaks up and hopes to get the attention of state lawmakers.

Tammy Brady fights to make casinos smoke-free. She was diagnosed with cancer after 37 years working in a casino.

Countess Brewer | CNBC

Brady, a Dealer Supervisor at Borgata, has worked in casinos for 37 years since she was 18. She said she was desperate to work in a smoke-free environment.

“It’s the worst part of my job. I would enjoy my job if it weren’t for the smoke,” Brady said. Customers blow smoke directly into her face, she added. “It’s awful. It’s just that you have to sit there and just take it.”

Brady is on sick leave undergoing treatment for breast cancer. “I’m scared to go back to my job in a smoking environment,” she told CNBC, tears streaming down her face.

There is no safe level of second-hand smoke, the United States Office of the Surgeon General has concluded. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited a study that found 50% of sampled casinos had levels of air pollution known to cause cardiovascular disease after just two hours of exposure. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health recommends a completely smoke-free environment. “Casino workers are at high risk of health risks from second-hand smoke, including heart disease, lung cancer, and acute and chronic respiratory illnesses,” the federal agency said.

“When you’re playing a smoking game. It’s torture,” said Pete Naccarelli, a longtime Borgata dealer, which is owned by MGM Resorts.

The company declined to comment for this story.

A long battle

This isn’t the first challenge to New Jersey’s casino exemption for indoor smoking. In 2008, Atlantic City banned it, and gaming revenue dropped 20% in the first week alone. Citing economic challenges and a deteriorating economy, the city reversed the smoking ban, and Atlantic City casinos were once again allowed to offer smoking on 25% of the casino floor.

Unite Here, the union representing casino workers who are not dealers, opposes any attempt to reinstate a ban, worried about falling revenue and job cuts.

But the United Auto Workers Union, which represents licensees at three Atlantic City casinos, and the United Food and Commercial Workers, have since joined efforts to eliminate the casino smoking exemption.

“Our members include dealers who sit inches from customers who blow smoke directly in their faces for eight hours a day, every day,” the UAW said. “How much we know about the dangers of secondhand smoke is simply unacceptable.”

Last month, hundreds of casino employees organized a rally in Atlantic City to push for legislation to completely ban smoking, which is pending in the Assembly and in the Senate. The legislation has 43 co-sponsors, including Atlantic City lawmakers. The rally also marked the 16th anniversary of a New Jersey law banning smoking indoors. The Smoke Free Air Act went into effect on April 15, 2006, and bans smoking in almost all workplaces and places open to the public, with the exception of casinos.

While casinos worry about their smoking customers staying away, some visitors to Atlantic City would like to enjoy the clean air.

Princess Foster, a tourist from Pennsylvania, said she would welcome a ban on smoking in casinos. “The first thing I face is cigarette smoke. We try to rush because we don’t want to inhale,” she said.

Smoking is only permitted on 10% of Hard Rock Atlantic City’s playing area, according to Lupo, with significantly more non-playing space where smoking is prohibited. “Thanks to Covid, we have completed air filtration studies that validate that our air filtration is far better than any of the other buildings across the states.”

The American Society of Heating Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers recently sent a letter to the Casino Association of New Jersey, insisting that there are currently no effective ventilation systems for second-hand smoke and that there are no can only reduce odor and discomfort.

Hard Rock International President Jim Allen met with Governor Murphy last week about the pending legislation. Allen told CNBC the industry needs to work with regulators to find common ground, but he worries about a complete turnaround in New Jersey.

(L-R) Dave Bee, Stephen Madel, H. Barzilay and Frank Fitzgerald play poker May 11, 2004 at the grand opening of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida.

Joe Raedle | Getty Images

“The majority of our employees don’t want to see a total smoking ban because unfortunately they know it’s going to have a direct impact on tipping,” he said.

Hard Rock owns and operates casinos in other states that prohibit smoking indoors, although Native American tribes set the rules in casinos on sovereign tribal land. But Allen says that in Ohio, the heated outdoor play patio has been popular with smoking customers.

Where nearby casinos allow smoking, they could gain a competitive advantage, according to CBRE’s DeCree. “In markets like Chicagoland, New Orleans, and Mountaineer in West Virginia, where customers had conveniently located smoking alternatives, gaming revenue fell more than 20% in the first year after the ban. smoking,” he wrote.

A turn on smoking

But DeCree’s analysis and Spectrum Gaming’s report are based on pre-pandemic results. Andrew Klebanow, senior partner at C3 Gaming, said Covid had caused a major shift in attitudes around smoking.

“Basically what happened was that the smoking bans were put in place at no economic cost. Consumers didn’t react negatively, they kept coming because they like to gamble,” did he declare. “This is not what we expected to see, based on all the historical data we had before the pandemic.”

He predicts that casinos that do not become smoke-free put themselves at a competitive disadvantage. Its assessment is based on results in Pennsylvania, where Mount Airy Casino Resort remained smoke-free and saw revenue increase slightly – while competitor Mohegan Sun Pocono, which allows smoking, saw revenue decline slightly.

The Parx Casino in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, two hours from Atlantic City, has also opted to remain smoke-free even when the state lifted restrictions. Spokesman Marc Oppenheimer said there was no noticeable impact on revenue and Parx continued to gain market share. Surveys show that their customers prefer a smoke-free environment, he added.

Casinos in neighboring states like New York, Connecticut, Delaware and Maryland prohibit smoking inside.

But, Hard Rock’s Lupo insists, Atlantic City’s economy is in a precarious recovery from the 2020 Covid shutdowns. “For us to have layoffs at some point right now is dangerous and negatively impacts the casino.”

Nicole Vitola, table game merchant at Borgata, said she wasn’t buying the jobs threat.

“They’re adding virtual resellers; they’re not worried about job losses there,” she said. “When they went to online gambling, they weren’t worried about losing jobs there. But when it comes to saving our lives, they’re worried about losing jobs. That doesn’t makes no sense.”

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