Sixteen years in the making, a rally scheduled for later this month aims to be the loudest voice yet in favor of putting a permanent end to smoking inside Atlantic City casinos.

As gaming halls and local business leaders fight to keep things the same — smoking is permitted on a portion of a casino floor — folks in favor of a ban believe now's the best time to make the move.

"Certainly having it gone for a year during the pandemic showed us that it's not going to be the end of the world," state Sen. Vince Polistina, R-Linwood, told New Jersey 101.5.

Legislation that would eliminate a smoking ban exemption for casinos and simulcasting facilities has more than 40 sponsors and co-sponsors — Republicans and Democrats — across the Senate and Assembly. The sponsor/co-sponsor tally for the exemption was 15 during the 2020-2021 legislative session.

Casinos in Atlantic City were required to remain smoke-free for about a year when they reopened in July 2020 from their pandemic-induced shutdown. The rule was a breath of fresh air for many dealers and other casino workers.

Casino Employees Against Smoking's Effects (CEASE), a group that has more than 2,000 members on Facebook, has a rally scheduled for April 12 at McClinton Park, during which casino workers and lawmakers are expected to continue their push for passage of the pending legislation.

The week of April 12 marks the anniversary of the launch of New Jersey's original Smokefree Air Act in 2006.

"Sixteen years, we've been left out of the protection that the state gives everyone else," said Nicole Vitola, a dealer of 21 years. "You can't say it's detrimental to everyone else's health, but it's not detrimental to our health."

William Thomas Cain/Getty Images
William Thomas Cain/Getty Images
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Lamont White, who's been dealing since 1985, said on a daily basis, he's hoping he's not sent to a smoking table. Casinos are permitted, but not required, to allow smoking on up to 25% of the floor; no Atlantic City casinos have implemented their own smoking bans.

"Any day I could be faced with four guys chain-smoking on a blackjack table two feet in front of me," White said. "It's just my job to stand there ... and take the smoke. It's barbaric."

According to an analysis from Spectrum Gaming Group, commissioned by the Casino Association of New Jersey, a total smoking ban in Atlantic City casinos would result in a decline of up to 11% in gaming revenue and tens of millions more in non-gaming revenue, along with the loss of 1,000 to 2,500 jobs.

Noting the region continues to feel the adverse effects of the lingering coronavirus pandemic, the Greater Atlantic City Chamber said efforts to impose a permanent smoking ban at casinos "should be halted. President Michael Chait said any negative impact of a ban on the casino industry would hurt local businesses and vendors that rely on the local gaming industry.

In February 2022, in-person gaming revenue at Atlantic City casinos was 43% higher than a year prior. Revenue was down 3% compared to February 2020, right before the pandemic took hold of the Garden State.

Online gaming continues to boost the monthly numbers.

"The truth is employment and visitation are at 20 year low," Chait said. "Land-based gaming revenues are down from 2019 and have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. As the numbers demonstrate, this is not the time to enact policy changes that could inflict yet another blow to an already struggling industry and the employees, families and businesses that it supports."

Casino workers suggest this debate isn't a business issue, but strictly a health issue.

Dino Flammia is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com

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