A new report suggests that should New Jersey passes a smoking ban in Atlantic City’s casinos, gambling revenues could drop by nearly 11%, and could cost up to 2,500 jobs. But a group of thousands of employees at casinos in America’s Playground claim that the study, commissioned from the Casino Association of New Jersey and based on inaccurate assumptions, and that gambling companies have a tendency to prioritize profits over the health of their employees.
Angela Martinelli, a 58-year-old dealer from Atlantic City, started working at The Claridge in 1995. Martinelli was anxious to be assigned to work in the high-roller Baccarat room known as “the dungeon” because it was known to be an inhalation of cigarettes.
“You needed to walk around to see people,” says Martinelli, who works for the Borgata and is typically assigned to the smoking section two out of her five shifts each week. “It was a stinky fog.”
In the past few years she began experiencing difficulties breathing. She’s now dependent on oxygen concentrators. Her doctor says smoking secondhand smoke could be the primary culprit.
In July of last year, when Atlantic City lifted the temporary smoking ban that was in place during the height of the pandemic three long-time Borgata dealers formed the organization Casino Employees Against Smoking’s Effects (CEASE) to promote a permanent ban on smoking cigarettes inside. Lamont White, Pete Naccarelli and Nicole Vitola began gathering on Facebook and since then, more than 2,000 casino employees are part of the group to try and end the loophole in law which allows smoking in specific areas of casinos.
“Bottom of the story: They’re talking money over health,” says Naccarelli, a 44-year-old dealer who’s been working in casinos since 18. “People are dying in the casinos, people are getting sick, and the long-term effects of secondhand smoke have been documented and are costing lives. Smoking outside isn’t permitted on the beach because you’ll hurt the seagulls, however smoking in the front of me.”
The report, published by Spectrum Gaming Group, claims that a prohibition on cigars and cigarettes would result in the following: a 10.9 percentage decrease in gaming revenues and a possible loss of $93 million from non-gaming revenues and around $44 million tax revenue. The report claims that the ban would impact approximately 1,000-2,500 casino jobs.
The rationale, according to the research is that smokers are spending “significantly more” dollars gambling than non-smokers. Spectrum estimate that between 21 and 21% out of Atlantic City casino visitors are smokers. However, they contribute between 26.1 percentage and 31.3% of the casinos’ earnings. Due to the fact that smokers spend more money gambling, Spectrum puts a 25 percent to 50% increase in terms of value to casinos for those who smoke while playing.
The study modeled that in the event that a smoker as well as a non-smoker played slot machines for two hours at a non-smoking facility, the smoker would lose more money than the smoker as a result of cigarette breaks. Two ten-minute cigarette breaks could reduce the smoker’s “time-on-device”–a vital measure of engagement that reflects the amount a gambler is likely to spend – by 17 percent.
Joe Lupo, president of both the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Atlantic City and the Casino Association of New Jersey, believes that a ban on smoking would be a major negative for residents of the South Jersey town. The rate of wins per game in smoking sections are up by 50% when compared to games played in non-smoking rooms.
“We are certain to lose money,” says Lupo. “At the moment we are coming from the pandemic where airline and vehicle traffic to Atlantic City are both at 12-year lows , with [the gaming revenue of the city is just a fraction of what it was during our highest point in 2000, this isn’t a good moment to think about another negative impact on Atlantic City that is trying to recover.”
The casinos in Atlantic City are the last refuges smoking smokers have in this part of the Garden State. New Jersey banned indoor smoking in 2006 however, the law left a loophole for casinos and places that broadcast. Smoking is allowed at Atlantic City casinos on up to 25 percent of the casino floor. Other states, such as Louisiana, Illinois and Delaware had banned smoking at casinos years ago. The state of Pennsylvania allows smoking in 50% of casino floors . Lupo believes that a ban for New Jersey will result in gamblers escaping to safer pastures in close proximity to Philadelphia.
Whatever the battle Atlantic City casinos fight, an end to the ban is coming soon. There are two bills that have been proposed within the New Jersey legislature–one in the assembly and one in the senate that would eliminate the smoking loophole in Atlantic City casinos. Both bills are scheduled for a vote by the beginning of March. Gov. Phil Murphy says he will approve a bill to close the loophole if it ends up in his office.
New Jersey Sen. Vincent Polistina A Republican who has backed the ban, believes it’s just a matter of time before the “antiquated” smoking in casinos is banned in casinos.
“Secondhand smoke is a known carcinogen and we need to consider the health of people first,” Polistina says. “I do not believe that employees should be forced to breathe smoke on their faces.”
He believes that the doom and doom predicted by hospitality industry organizations when smoking was banned in restaurants and bars did not happen, and he believes similar things will occur in casinos.
If asked who could lose if this bill passes, Polistina doesn’t hesitate. “I don’t believe anyone will lose,” he says. “I think that you could have more gamblers who are happy there’s no smoke. If the legislation passes I believe employees gain, but I think operators win as you will have greater numbers of people in these buildings.”
Gambling is the lifeblood in Atlantic City and Lupo states that a ban would cause ripple effects across all businesses, not just hotels and casinos.
“We want an extension to review this at a later time and especially because Pennsylvania is a smoker,” Lupo says. “We do not want another casino to be shut down. We don’t want lay off people.”
Spectrum’s report found that 13 percent of smokers will remain in casinos even If a ban were to be enacted. A smoking ban will not impact the number of smokers or any gambler who gambles in New Jersey, from gambling online. New Jersey has the biggest iGaming market–mobile poker, blackjack, virtual slots and other casino games in the nation, and also one of the biggest sports betting markets on mobile devices.
The study also found that non-smokers who enjoy the smoke-free atmosphere could increase their game and boost gross gaming revenue by 1 percentage to 1.5 percent, but it isn’t enough to offset the loss resulting from smoking.
In October, Bill Miller, chief executive officer of the American Gaming Association, stated to PlayNJ that many casino operators have stated that smoking bans during Covid didn’t result in any decrease in business. Miller said that smoking bans at many properties did not lead to “detrimental effects.”
Casino operators argue that the air filtration system eliminates the majority of the risk associated smoking in indoor. When the pandemic was raging, New Jersey casinos banned indoor smoking at all properties but a month before smoking indoors resumed, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) wrote a letter to the Casino Association of New Jersey urging them to continue to smokers to be banned. “There is currently no or anticipated reasonably-foreseeable ventilation or air-cleaning device that could effectively manage or substantially reduce the risks to health of tobacco smokeat a reasonable level,” the letter reads.
Lamont White, co-founder of CEASE and a dealer at the Borgata and the Borgata, believes it’s high time things change. “I’ve been in the business since 1985, and you could smoke in a hospital as well as a plane, barbershop,” claims White. “Today all of the world has changed, minus the casinos.”