Union protesters blow cigarette smoke at NJ lawmakers as Atlantic City smoking ban remains in limbo

With prospects for a smoking ban in Atlantic City’s casinos looking hazier than ever, workers who want smoking banned took matters into their own hands, lips and lungs Thursday.

Members of the United Auto Workers union disrupted a meeting of a state Assembly committee that had been scheduled to take a preliminary vote on a bill to ban smoking in the casinos by lighting cigarettes and blowing smoke toward legislators.

That vote was canceled Wednesday night when one of the main champions of workers who want smoking banned in the gambling halls gave up on a bill that would end smoking in the nine casinos, and embraced some measures the casino industry wants, including enclosed smoking rooms.

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That had some employees burning mad — literally.

Seven members of the union, which represents dealers at three casinos in Atlantic City, began smoking in the meeting hall of the State House Annex, where, like virtually all other workplaces in New Jersey, smoking is prohibited.

“We’re not allowed to smoke in your workplace, but you’re allowed to smoke in ours,” Daniel Vicente, a regional director of the union, told lawmakers through a cloud of exhaled smoke.

He and the others were soon escorted from the hearing room by State Police, and released without charges.

“They say it’s OK for secondhand smoke to be blown in our faces all day, every day,” Vicente said afterward. “We wanted to know if it’s OK if we did that in their workplace. They said it was inappropriate and not allowed here.”

Angry workers said they want the state’s top Democratic leadership to force a vote on the original bill that would impose a total smoking ban, but the likelihood of such a vote remains unclear.

State Sen. Vince Polistina, a Republican from the Atlantic City area who has appeared with casino workers at rallies in favor of a smoking ban, said the original bill is going nowhere.

He said he’s writing a new measure incorporating proposals favored by the casino industry while still working toward the goal of keeping secondhand smoke away from workers and customers who don’t want it.

“My conversations with leaders in both houses make it clear that there is not enough support for this bill,” he said, referring to the original measure that would ban smoking without exceptions. “It is disappointing that after two years of advocating and building support with our colleagues, we still do not have the necessary support in the Legislature to get a full smoking ban passed.”

Polistina said he expects to introduce the new bill next year after the current legislative session ends.

It would prohibit smoking at table games; gradually reduce smoking at slot machines over 18 months, with specific distances between table games and the nearest smoking-permitted slot machines; and give the casinos 18 months to build enclosed rooms where gamblers could still smoke, but which would be staffed by employees who volunteer to work in them.

That proposal was denounced last week by Shawn Fain, international president of the United Auto Workers, which represents dealers at three Atlantic City casinos. He called the idea of smoking rooms “preposterous” and called on lawmakers to pass the original smoking ban bill.

If enacted in early 2024, Polistina’s measure would end smoking on the unenclosed casino floor by the fall of 2025, he said.

That did not go over well with the many casino workers.

Pete Naccarelli, a Borgata dealer and a leader of the employee anti-smoking movement, said Polistina is “copying and pasting casino executive talking points and attempting to present them as a credible solution. It’s shameful and disgusting.”

Senate President Nicholas Scutari declined comment Thursday. A spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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New Jersey’s public smoking law specifically exempts casinos — something that workers have long sought to change.

But the casinos oppose a smoking ban on competitive grounds, saying Atlantic City would lose business and jobs to casinos in neighboring states where smoking is permitted. Workers dispute that, citing research showing business improved at numerous casinos after a smoking ban.

Recently, the industry has floated a proposal for enclosed smoking areas, but has not publicly spelled out the details. The Casino Association of New Jersey declined earlier this week to provide details on its vision for smoking rooms. In a statement Thursday, the group said, “It is clear that more and more people realize that the bill, as drafted, will have a significant adverse effect on Atlantic City’s economy.”

Vicente said union members who disrupted the meeting made their point.

“Do I think this is going to change their minds and get a smoking ban passed? No,” he said. “Did we show them how angry we are that we’re the only ones who have to put up with this in our workplaces? Absolutely.”

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