Atlantic City leans toward smoke-free casinos

Two years after New Jersey banned smoking in most public buildings, the last groups not affected — casino workers and patrons — could soon be included under a new, local provision of the law.

The City Council here is scheduled to vote on final approval next week to a smoking ban on its 11 casino floors starting Oct. 15. Smoking would still be permitted in enclosed smoking lounges where there would be no gambling.

New Jersey's Smoke-Free Air Act took effect April 15, 2006, prohibiting smoking in restaurants, bars, office buildings and other indoor spaces. It carries fines of $250 to $1,000 for people who light up and businesses that let them. The one exception then: Atlantic City casinos, which argued that a smoking ban would drive away business.

Although they opposed the casino exemption, anti-smoking groups generally supported the state law, even while vowing to work to include the gambling halls later on. Now the city, through a local ordinance, is poised to give them what they've been seeking.

"We didn't like the compromise, but we knew it would instantly save lives," said George DiFerdinando, a former acting state health commissioner who now leads NJ Breathes, a coalition of anti-smoking groups.

There are about 80,000 fewer smokers in New Jersey than there were in 2005 and 2006, according to the state health department.

About two dozen casino workers held a rally on the Boardwalk on Tuesday to support the City Council proposal.

"It's been two years now, and dealers are still getting sick," said Nate Chait, a dealer at Caesars Atlantic City. "From the bottom of our hearts, lungs and souls, we thank the City Council for their support of us."

The Casino Association of New Jersey worries that the smoking ban will hurt revenue in an already bad economic climate, but said it will comply with it as long as the casinos have enough time to build the smoking lounges.

If passed next Wednesday, the ban would not oblige casinos to build the lounges; they would have the option to do so or to ban smoking throughout the premises.