N.J. is 18 years late on closing the casino loophole

By: Tom Delleart, ACS CAN Volunteer

April 5, 2024

The following was originally published in the Press of Atlantic City on April 5, 2024.

January 15, 2024, marked 18 years since the New Jersey Smoke-free Air Act was signed into law. My family and I are proud New Jerseyans and direct beneficiaries of this groundbreaking legislation. I distinctly remember the difference it made in everyday life; clearing the haze from restaurants, commuter trains and businesses made it safer for workers and patrons alike. It is hard for me to imagine returning to a restaurant and sitting through a meal with plumes over my plate, ashtrays at every table or returning to a workplace where smoking is permitted and condoned.

We owe such comfort to the advocates—the restaurant workers, medical professionals, public health leaders and legislators—who fought tooth and nail for New Jerseyans’ right to breathe clean air through the Smoke-free Air Act. It is a victory worth celebrating but necessary to improve. When the Smoke-free Air Act was signed in 2006, New Jersey did not become 100% smoke-free. It left casino workers behind, stripping them of a right that has been granted to every other employee in New Jersey: a smoke-free workplace. We cannot let another year pass before we close the casino loophole in the Smoke-free Air Act.

In January of this year, the N.J. Senate Health Committee passed a bill, S1493, to enshrine casino workers’ right to a smoke-free workplace and protect them from the known dangers of secondhand smoke. In the intervening years since the New Jersey Smoke-free Air Act was signed, no proposal has shown as much promise as this one.

Seeing S1493 garner a broad coalition of support has given my fellow volunteers at the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) hope for the first time in 18 years. Beyond those most directly harmed by secondhand smoke in Atlantic City, the casino workers, and the union representing them, The United Auto Workers, we have seen national public health organizations and former casino executives express their support for this legislation, which is being championed by the Casino Employees Against Smoking Effects (CEASE) coalition. 

This bill isn’t just popular with health advocates like me, it’s popular with regular New Jerseyans and local casino patrons as well. In a recent poll of casino-goers from both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, nearly three in four adults stated that they were more likely to visit an entirely smoke-free casino, suggesting that, on top of being a health issue, secondhand smoke can be bad for business. Data from across the country confirm this. For example, C3 Gaming out of Las Vegas surveyed multiple jurisdictions and found that banning smoking no longer causes a dramatic drop in gaming revenue. In fact, non-smoking properties report to be performing better than their counterparts that continue to allow smoking.

Furthermore, casino employers who allow smoking in the workplace end up paying more in health, life and fire insurance premiums and workers’ compensation payments and suffer from higher worker absenteeism, resulting in lower work productivity.

From all perspectives—medical, economic, social—secondhand smoke is a net negative. Any proposal that does not entirely eliminate smoking from casinos only seeks to compromise workers’ health and the economic viability of Atlantic City casinos.

Since 2006, my fellow ACS CAN volunteers, which include cancer survivors, their loved ones and health care professionals, have been asking the same question: when are N.J. lawmakers going to do the right thing and protect the health of workers and casino patrons as well as the economic opportunity of Atlantic City casinos?

We are tired of facts falling flat with lawmakers who choose compromise proposals over commonsense improvements. Even former casino executives and the engineering experts who design ventilation systems have come out and said that these systems don’t keep people safe from cancer-causing chemicals found in secondhand smoke. 

As a longtime advocate, I feel called to stand up for the most vulnerable among us and that includes the casino workers who have been subjected to the hazards of secondhand smoke for far too long. The only effective way to fully protect casino workers from exposure to secondhand smoke is to eliminate smoking in every indoor public space. Anything short of a full smoke-free environment will remain—in practice and effect—a smoke-filled environment, posing a risk to the health of New Jerseyans and that of the Atlantic City community.

It is past time for our elected officials to correct this injustice and act immediately to close the casino smoking loophole and protect the health of thousands of workers and countless patrons. New Jerseyans and casino-goers should not have to wait any longer.

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