- Members of the United Auto Workers union disrupted a New Jersey State Assembly committee meeting, blowing smoke on lawmakers as progress on a smoking ban at an Atlantic City casino continues to stall.
- The initial vote on a comprehensive smoking ban was dropped on Wednesday as appeasements made to the casino industry were taken into account.
- “They say it’s OK to have secondhand smoke blown in our faces all day, every day,” regional union director Daniel Vicente said after he was escorted from the hearing room. “We wanted to know if it was okay to do that in their workplace. They said it was inappropriate and not allowed here.”
With the prospects of a smoking ban at Atlantic City casinos looking murkier than ever, workers who want a smoking ban took matters into their own hands, lips and lungs Thursday.
Members of the United Auto Workers union disrupted a meeting of a state House committee that was scheduled to take a preliminary vote on a bill to ban smoking in casinos by lighting cigarettes and blowing smoke toward lawmakers.
That vote was overturned Wednesday night when one of the main champions of workers who want to ban smoking in gambling halls abandoned a bill that would have ended smoking at the nine casinos, adopting some measures the casino industry wants, including enclosed smoking rooms.
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This has driven some employees crazy – literally.
Seven members of the union, which represents dealers at three Atlantic City casinos, began smoking in a conference room in the House of Representatives building, where smoking is prohibited, like almost all other workplaces in New Jersey.
“We are not allowed to smoke in your workplace, but you are allowed to smoke in our workplace,” Daniel Vicente, the union’s regional director, told lawmakers through a cloud of billowing smoke.
State police quickly escorted him and the others from the hearing room, and released them without charges.
“They say it’s OK to have secondhand smoke blown in our faces all day, every day,” Vicente said afterward. “We wanted to know if it was okay to do that in their workplace. They said it was inappropriate and not allowed here.”
Angry workers said they wanted the state’s top Democratic leadership to force a vote on the original bill that would impose a complete smoking ban, but the likelihood of such a vote remains unclear.
State Sen. Vince Polestina, an Atlantic City Republican who has appeared with casino workers at pro-smoking ban rallies, said the original bill would get nowhere.
He said he is writing a new measure that includes 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 chambers make it clear that there is not enough support for this bill,” he added, referring to the original measure that would ban smoking without exceptions. “It is disappointing that after two years of advocacy and building support with our colleagues, we still do not have the support needed in the Legislature to pass a complete smoking ban.”
Polistina said he expects the new bill to be introduced next year after the end of the current legislative session.
Smoking will be prohibited at table games. Gradually reduce smoking in slot machines over 18 months, with specific distances between table games and the nearest slot machines where smoking is permitted; Giving casinos 18 months to build closed rooms where gamblers can still smoke, but staffed by employees who volunteer to work there.
The proposal was denounced last week by Sean Fine, international president of the United Auto Workers union, 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 action would end smoking on unenclosed casino floors by the fall of 2025, he said.
That didn’t sit well with many of the casino workers.
Pete Nacarelli, a Borgata dealer and leader of the anti-smoking movement, told employees that Polestina is “copying and pasting the talking points of casino executives and trying to present them as a credible solution. It’s shameful and disgusting.”
Senate President Nicholas Scutari declined to comment on Thursday. A spokesman for the association’s president, Craig Coughlin, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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New Jersey’s public smoking law specifically excludes casinos — something workers have long sought to change.
But casinos oppose the smoking ban on competitive grounds, saying Atlantic City would lose business and jobs to casinos in neighboring states where smoking is allowed. Workers dispute this, pointing to research that showed business improved at many casinos after smoking was banned.
Recently, the industry floated a proposal for enclosed smoking areas, but has not publicly clarified the details. The New Jersey Casino Association earlier this week declined to provide details about its vision for smoking rooms. “It is clear that more and more people realize that the bill, as currently drafted, will have a significant negative impact on Atlantic City’s economy,” the group said in a statement Thursday.
Vicente said the union members who disrupted the meeting made their point clear.
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“Do I think this will change their minds and lead to the adoption of a smoking ban? No,” he said. “Did we show them how angry we are that we are the only ones who have to endure this in our workplace? Absolutely.”