N.J. Smoking Ban Stacks Deck in Casinos' Favor?

ByJake Tapper and Alison Schwartz

April 12, 2006 — -- The exotic dancers were up in arms. Billed as the "Hundred Stripper March," the women converged on New Jersey's state capital in January to protest the new indoor-smoking ban.

"I've been in the bar business 42 years, I've never had a customer say to me, 'I can't stay in here, it's too smoky,'" said one of the protestors.

Every year an estimated 53,000 Americans die because of exposure to secondhand smoke, say health experts, and that's not to mention the hundreds of thousands who develop serious diseases as a result -- cancer, asthma and heart disease. So far,18 states have passed laws banning smoking in public places, but sometimes special exemptions in those laws make the bills all but meaningless.

Despite the strong emotions of the pole-dancers, polls of New Jersey residents indicate that an overwhelming majority support an indoor-smoking ban.

But some of the protestors -- and many health experts -- say one controversial provision in the bill that caters to casinos indicates the state's politicians may have an addiction of their own -- to money, power and the influence of big business.

The indoor-smoking ban, which was signed into law in January by then acting-Gov. Richard Codey, applies everywhere in New Jersey except for it's No. 1 tourist destination, Atlantic City's casinos. That powerful $5 billion a year industry managed to get an exemption from the law.

So even after the ban takes effect on April 15, it will be perfectly fine for smokers to take a long drag and exhale toxic smoke on the gaming floors and bars inside Bally's Wild Wild West, the Sands, Trump's Taj Mahal and the other casinos in Atlantic City, which attract more than 30 million visitors a year.

Codey says he would have preferred not to exempt the casinos but says stacking the deck in their favor was the only way he could get the bill passed.

"I came up with a compromise," Codey said. "I thought it was fair and reasonable to move on and get the rest of New Jersey smoke-free."

And Codey, who is now the Democratic state senate president, insists the exemption is not hypocritical.

"I don't think it's really any different than when you have, for example, a Boeing company in Washington, and legislators who are always trying to help that industry, the airplane industry, because it's a large employer within their state," Codey said.

But the exemption is not such a good thing for small-business owners such as strip joints, which are certainly not as influential. As one stripper said, "I'm totally overregulated as it is."

But Codey says the strippers shouldn't worry. If you build it, they will come, he said.

"Where else are the customers going to go? You just have no place to go unless you want to stay at home and have your wife provide that entertainment for you," he said.

To other small-business owners, like Frank Dougherty who runs Atlantic City's Knife and Fork restaurant, the smoking ban is no laughing matter.

Dougherty's father -- a lifelong smoker -- died of lung cancer, and he supports the ban. But he says the ban is indeed hypocritical and worries the casino exemption will take food off his table.

"Probably 70 percent of our business is convention, tourism business, and the casinos are the major, primary attraction for that business," Dougherty said. "You can have a drink and a cigarette there, but if you walk across the street, essentially a block away, you can't have a drink and a cigarette here."

And some casino workers say New Jersey politicians are rolling the dice with their lives.Atlantic City casinos, including Ceasars, employ about 50,000 people.

"As if my life doesn't matter," said Joan Bowers, a casino games supervisor at Trump Plaza who has worked in the industry for 20 years.

Bowers says she was diagnosed with asthma a couple years after starting work on the gaming floors, thick with those cancer-causing clouds.

"And I'm not the only one," she said. "There's so many of my co-workers who've been diagnosed with asthma, emphysema, lung cancer. They're dying."

The Casino Association of New Jersey would not comment for this story, but in the past it has asked state officials to consider things like better ventilation to handle the smoking instead of imposing a ban. They got their way, but that's not exactly what Bowers and her co-workers wanted to hear.

"They're furious, they're just furious," Bowers said. "They would love to meet Codey personally and tell him our thoughts."

Codey said that the casino workers' health is just as important as everyone else's in the state. "But for right now, to get every other worker throughout the state of New Jersey a smoke-free environment, it was a compromise that we had to do," he said.

But no matter how you try to explain it, tens of thousands of casino employees -- and millions of tourists -- were essentially told by state politicians that their health ain't worth craps.

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