Atlantic City delays casino smoking ban

October 27, 2008 4:46:55 PM PDT
Atlantic City's less-than-two-week-old ban on smoking in casinos will soon end under a change-of-heart measure narrowly approved Monday by the City Council and quickly signed by the mayor. Casinos said the ban cut into their business, while their workers were deeply divided whether its health benefits outweighed the potential economic harm. Some at Monday's meeting shouted "Save Our Jobs!" while others chanted "Save Our Lives!"

On Nov. 16, Atlantic City's 11 casinos will revert to a previous arrangement under which smoking is permitted on no more than 25 percent of a casino floor. The ban on smoking will be on hold for at least a year under the council's 5-4 vote.

"We had to reconcile two very compelling sides: No one wants to lose their job and certainly no one wants to lose their life," Councilman Bruce Ward said. "But the background of the financial crisis is connected to where we are tonight."

Liz String, a dealer at Harrah's Resort Atlantic City for 26 years, had been relieved when the ban was approved in April and counted the days until it took effect Oct. 15. Now she's incensed.

"We finally have clean air, which is our right, and they're taking it away from us," String said. "I think we were betrayed."

The council acted after casinos cited the worsening economy and revenue that had already been plunging due to stiff competition from slots parlors in Pennsylvania and New York.

Bob McDevitt, president of Unite Here Local 54, which represents casino hotel, food and beverage workers, also pushed for the ban to be delayed, fearing that it could cost hundreds of union jobs.

In the seven-day period that ended last Friday - at a time when the stock market was already seeing historic losses - the amount casinos won from gamblers fell 19.5 percent, McDevitt said. That figure was confirmed by the state Casino Control Commission.

"In the current economic environment, I don't think anyone with any intelligence would say it's a good idea to give people another reason not to come to Atlantic City," he said.

Puffing a cigarette in the valet parking area of Trump Marina Hotel Casino, Janice Sigmund said she would stop making her monthly trek from Hazleton, Pa., if the ban wasn't lifted.

"This is horrible," she said. "I'm from Pennsylvania, and I can just as easily go 40 minutes up the road to Mount Airy and gamble there, where I can smoke," she said, referring to a nearby slots parlor.

Under the smoking ban the council approved in April, casinos could set up enclosed, ventilated smoking lounges where gamblers could light up away from the slot machines and table games. Eight of the 11 have done so.

String said she dreads going back to smoke-filled gambling tables.

"It chokes you," she said. "And if you try to wave it out of your face, that's discourtesy and cause for termination.

"You can't back away from the table because you're responsible for all those chips in front of you," she added. "There's no way to escape. It's torture."

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