Atlantic City casinos are being targeted by anti-smoking advocates who believe the time is long overdue to close gaming’s clean indoor air loophole. But word this week from the state’s most powerful legislator suggests that the activists aren’t persuading those in charge.
The American Cancer Society held its “Great American Smokeout” yesterday, an annual event that encourages smokers to kick their habits. Anti-smoking advocates in New Jersey had hoped that the campaign would prompt state leaders in Trenton to finally push for legislation to fully ban indoor smoking on casino floors.
But when pressed for comment on such legislation, New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D), who is a lame duck following his nearly unthinkable election upset earlier this month, said no such undertaking is underway.
We haven’t even started to talk about it [banning casino smoking],” Sweeney responded to an inquiry during a grand opening event of a new ShopRite grocery store in Atlantic City. “The governor, myself, and the [Assembly] speaker have to get together and decide which bills we’re going to move forward.”
Sweeney, a long advocate of the Atlantic City casino industry, is set to depart office in January after 20 years in elected office.
Governor, President At Odds
Sweeney’s divulging that the top leaders in the New Jersey capital haven’t engaged in serious discussions to end casino smoking in Atlantic City seemingly goes against Gov. Phil Murphy’s (D) recent apparent enthusiasm for such an effort.
During an interview in September, Murphy, who narrowly avoided being unseated by his Republican challenger, said he would “unequivocally” sign legislation that would extinguish casino smoking. Two months later, however, it appears — at least according to Sweeney — that no such serious conversation regarding the issue has occurred.
Senator Sweeney’s comments yesterday could not be more out of touch with the unacceptable reality we face at work every day,” declared Pete Naccarelli, co-leader of the “Casino Employees Against Smoking’s Effects (CEASE).” “We have been calling on him for months to take action to close the casino loophole, so this is not new to him.”
Sweeney hasn’t acted on casino smoking during his early days as a lame duck. But he has pushed a bill that would reduce the amount of property tax payments the casinos might pay in the coming years.
“Why is he moving quickly to give casinos a tax break but leaving us behind? We need him to take action. We will not forget who fought for us and who did nothing,” Naccarelli warned.
Murphy lacks the power to singlehandedly end casino smoking. The legislature must first act, and some state lawmakers are trying to do just that.
S.1878 would end the smoking ban exemption for Atlantic City casinos. The current version of the bill was introduced back in February of 2020. But similar attempts have floated the Trenton capital halls for the past several years.
Sweeney’s political track record regarding Atlantic City has been one that often aligns with the casino industry. The town’s Casino Association of New Jersey continues to maintain that a full smoking ban would hurt business, and result in reduced jobs and less tax money for Atlantic County and the state.
Anti-smoking advocates say gaming revenue would not be negatively impacted by a full tobacco ban.
“We are grateful for the governor’s clear answer that he would sign legislation to close the casino loophole,” said Cynthia Hallett, president and CEO of “Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights.”
“However, we know that Senate President Sweeney, in particular, stands in the way. The governor must go further and publicly call for Sen. Sweeney … to send a bill to his desk in the lame duck session.”
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