AC moves to delay casino smoking ban

October 9, 2008 6:03:49 AM PDT
The latest casualty of the economic crisis may be the ban on smoking in Atlantic City's 11 casinos. In a preliminary vote Wednesday night, the City Council moved to postpone for a year a law that was to take effect next week banning smoking from the gambling floor. A final vote will be held in two weeks.

Casinos would still be able to offer enclosed, ventilated smoking lounges away from the slot machines and table games.

The council voted in April to have the ban take effect Oct. 15.

But Council President William "Speedy" Marsh said a special meeting may be needed before then to vote to explicitly stop the ban from taking effect on that date. He said the council would seek a legal opinion on the matter Thursday morning.

The council was showered with boos as it voted 5-4 to give preliminary approval to the delay.

"You just gave us a death sentence!" someone shouted in the packed council chambers.

Vince Rennich, a former longtime worker at the Tropicana Casino and Resort who blames his lung cancer on second-hand smoke from gamblers, sharply criticized the council for its vote.

"I can't imagine how you can look in your hearts and do this," he said.

The casinos and the head of the largest casino workers union had asked the council to put the ban on hold until the economy improves. Even before the Wall Street meltdown and the freeze-up of credit markets, Atlantic City casinos were dealing with plunging revenue and cutthroat competition from slots parlors in Pennsylvania and New York.

Now, with things even worse, casino owners fear even deeper losses and significant layoffs if smokers - and their money - go elsewhere. Pennsylvania slots parlors have a partial smoking ban, and Indian casinos in Connecticut do not restrict smoking.

Larry Mullin, president of the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa, said the casinos are concerned for the welfare of their workers and customers.

"But we have to balance this concern with the economic reality that many employees in our industry may lose their jobs and their benefits if the smoking ban is not delayed," he said.

One of those who would no longer come to Atlantic City is Barbara Odom, a 70-year-old woman who drives eight hours from North Carolina every three months to play the slots at Resorts Atlantic City.

"I want to smoke. I enjoy it here," she said Wednesday afternoon. "I would think New Jersey could use the tax money we generate. If I can't smoke, I'll go somewhere else."

So would Anita Sutton, 84, from Caldwell, who comes to the gambling resort once a week.

"I get on the bus and you can't smoke in there," she said. "I come here and play and have a cigarette or two."

As she was speaking, a casino attendant asked her to put out her cigarette, saying another patron was complaining about it.

"It's starting already," she said. "This would annoy me."

Two hours before the council meeting was scheduled to begin, scores of casino workers, smoking opponents and a man dressed in a giant cigarette costume were already making their points to anyone who would listen inside and outside City Hall.

Inside the cigarette costume was John Caffrey of Bedminster, who helped do indoor air testing for anti-smoking groups last year. His voice heavy with sarcasm, he said he was attending the meeting to protest "what they're doing to tobacco."

"Tobacco and gambling have been a winning team forever," he said. "Why break up a winning team?"

Growing serious, Caffrey said he is a longtime casino patron who was looking forward to breathing clean air at the tables.

"I'm just tired of putting up with the smoke," he said.

Kyle Noel, a 24-year dealer at Caesars Atlantic City was among those who want to ban to take effect as planned on Oct. 15.

"I need to work, and I want to keep my health," he said. "What good is a job if it kills you."

Not all casino workers want the ban, however. Karen DeVito, a 12-year cocktail server at the Tropicana, came to the meeting wearing a bright red T-shirt that read, "I Am From Atlantic City and I Want To Work." She said she is afraid of being laid off if business falls even further when smokers stop coming here.

"Business is really slow as it is with the bad economy, why make it worse?" she asked. "I'm seeing it every day in my tips, which are way down. And customers keep asking me every five minutes: `Where can I smoke, where can I smoke?'

"Gambling, drinking and smoking have gone together for centuries," DeVito said. "It's not fair for the state to tell a grown adult who spends thousands and thousands of dollars on entertainment that he or she can't have a cigarette."

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