Atlantic City balks at full ban on casino smoking

Atlantic City – Last minute changes to an ordinance originally designed to outlaw smoking in resort casinos now would limit smoking to non-gaming lounges.

Recent discussions among City Council members and some casino officials altered plans to propose a full casino smoking ban today, instead settling with a ban on all gaming floors and the threat of a full ban if smoking lounges are not built within 90 days of the law’s passage.

„Smoking ends in 90 days,“ Councilman Bruce Ward said confidently Tuesday. „The casinos, however, will be allowed to construct smoking lounges similar to airport smoking lounges, but they will not have personnel in them.“

The compromise is the second time City Council has fallen short in attempting to establish a full ban. In February 2007, a full ban was proposed but was watered down with amendments shortly after, allowing smoking on 25 percent of all city gaming halls, while the remaining space would be smoke-free. The half-measure was dismissed by non-smoking advocates as a betrayal.

„It’s a step in the right direction,“ said Karen Blumenfeld of the New Jersey Group Against Smoking Pollution, known as GASP. „The trends are going toward a 100 percent full ban; that’s what the city needs to do. But this is a start.“

As part of the city’s current partial smoking ban, casinos are required to build enclosed smoking rooms or lounges equipped with separate ventilation systems to keep smoke from drifting to other parts of the casino.

The casinos‘ perceived inaction pushed Ward to draft a complete ban ordinance again, armed with three other supporting votes on the nine-member council and claiming to have others on the fence.
But as the days approached, it began to seem less likely that the ordinance would have the support it needed to get passed. Councilman George Tibbitt then met with some casino officials and began to work with Ward on the amendments.

„We will not sacrifice the health of our casino workers any longer,“ Tibbitt said Tuesday. „But I pushed for this because I don’t want to hurt the casinos.“

When asked what the new amendments‘ chances are to be passed, Ward simply said, „better.“

Casinos blame the partial smoking ban as a major factor in the industry’s 5.7 percent revenue decline last year. They are worried that more customers would be scared off if the city enacts a complete ban.
„(The) last thing the industry needs to face is the instability of the very city rule that already has brought new challenges to this market,“ J. Carlos Tolosa, president of Harrah’s Eastern Division, wrote to the mayor and City Council on Tuesday. „In short, even the threat of a change of the (smoking) ordinance adds more uncertainty to an already difficult and tenuous market.“

Not one of the 11 casinos has received approval yet to begin building the smoking rooms, according to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, the state agency overseeing construction on behalf of Atlantic City. The DCA said the casinos have been slow in responding to the department’s questions about the smoking rooms.

Tolosa argued the casinos are not to blame for any delays in securing DCA approvals. He said delays have been caused by debate over the type of ventilation systems needed for the smoking rooms.
„The indisputable facts are that the delay in receiving approval from the DCA resulted from an ambiguity in the ordinance on the nature of the ventilation requirements,“ Tolosa wrote. „In fact, we have been diligently working with the staffs of the DCA and Atlantic City Health Department regarding a clarification of this issue.“

Records from the DCA seem to support Tolosa’s claims of participation, showing Harrah’s has been responding to the DCA‘s questions. But other casinos have not been nearly as active. Along with minimal responses from the Atlantic City Hilton and Trump Plaza, there have been no reponses issued by the Borgata, Trump Taj Mahal and Trump Marina since first being questioned in October 2007.

The 90-day deadline would likely be tougher to meet for some casinos than others. Unlike the majority of the city casinos, Trump Taj Mahal, Atlantic City Hilton, Trump Marina and Resorts Atlantic City all submitted plans to the DCA for smoking rooms located on their gaming floors. Changing and resubmitting their plans to the DCA would put them at a disadvantage to other casinos who already submitted plans strictly for smoking lounges.

„They don’t have to comply,“ Ward said. „They can wait for the full ban to come into effect.“