|By Suzette Parmley, The Philadelphia
InquirerMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Apr. 10, 2008 - ATLANTIC CITY -- The nine-member Atlantic City Council voted unanimously yesterday to approve a controversial measure that would prohibit smoking on all casino floors for the first time in the seaside resort's 30-year history of gambling.
The ordinance, which would allow smoking only in specially built nongaming lounges inside casinos, must go before the council again for a second reading April 23. But Atlantic City Mayor Scott Evans -- who must sign it into law -- has publicly stated his support of a total ban and of restricting smoking to the lounges, virtually assuring its final passage.
"Absolutely, this is a major turning point," said Todd Salerno, community executive for the American Cancer Society for Atlantic County. "This is one more step forward in protecting the health of the entire workforce of New Jersey."
The Casino Association of New Jersey, which represents the city's casino operators, had argued that, since many patrons smoke, a full ban would lead to a further erosion of gaming revenue and profit and a loss of thousands of casino jobs. But the association eased off yesterday after winning more time to build the nonsmoking lounges.
The full smoking ban was to take effect 90 days after being signed into law by Evans. But just before the vote, a compromise was reached between council members and casino officials to extend the deadline to Oct. 15 to have the smoking lounges built.
"We're going to be compliant and do whatever we need to do to be compliant," said Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc. chief executive officer Mark Juliano, "but give us enough time."
In casinos that do not build the lounges where workers need not enter -- similar to smoker-only rooms at many U.S. airports -- smoking indoors would be completely banned.
"At least with these nonstaffed, nongaming lounges, you have more flexibility in where you can put them," said Juliano, who was among those who pushed for the deadline extension. "It's a middle ground." Trump Entertainment owns three casinos here.
Advancement of the proposed ban arrives on the eve of the first anniversary of the partial smoking ban, which took effect April 15 last year, that confined smoking to 25 percent of the casino floors -- the "75-25 rule."
The one-year-old law required the 11 casinos to build enclosed smoking structures within their confines. To date, none of the Atlantic City casinos has built one or received the necessary approvals from the state Department of Community Affairs, according to agency spokesman Chris Donnelly.
Several casino operators have said they were waiting to see if a full ban on smoking would eventually be taken up by the City Council before committing millions of dollars to building the enclosures.
In the last year, some casino-worker groups joined forces with nonprofit health organizations to fight what they described as enormous pressure by the $5 billion casino industry to defeat a full smoking ban.
Their alliance persuaded Atlantic City Council to pass a resolution 9-0 in June to seek inclusion of Atlantic City's casinos in the New Jersey Indoor Clean Air Act of 2006, which banned smoking in workplaces.
The state Senate voted 35-0 to approve the resolution, but it languished in the Assembly.
Jennifer Guillermain, 43, of Somers Point, N.J., a nonsmoking casino worker, has tested positive for nodules in her lungs. She blames secondhand smoke she inhaled for 24 years while working in casinos.
"We endanger our health every time we show up for work," Guillermain said. "It proves that the surgeon general is correct that there are no safe levels of secondhand smoke."
Casino owners had argued that a smoking ban would put Atlantic City at a competitive disadvantage with new slot venues in Pennsylvania and New York.
A Pennsylvania Senate-House conference committee is expected to take up a statewide policy on smoke-free workplaces after April 22. The legislation may include casinos, bars and taverns.
In Atlantic City, total revenue year-to-date ended Feb. 29 was down 4.4 percent from the previous year for the city's casinos. March casino revenue comes out today.
Wall Street analysts have blamed the decline on Pennsylvania slots parlors and, to some extent, on the year-old partial smoking ban in Atlantic City's casinos.
Andrew Zarnett, a gambling-industry analyst with Deutsche Bank AG, in New York, said a full Atlantic City smoking ban "will lead to a sizable decrease in revenues as smokers seek out alternatives such as Pennsylvania that still allow them to pull [slot-machine levers] while puffing."
At least one patron, Barbara Myers, from Long Island, N.Y., had come to terms with the pending change in Atlantic City.
"I've adjusted to everything else, like no smoking in restaurants and bars," said Myers, as she played the giant Wheel of Fortune slot machine this week at Showboat in one of the casino's designated smoking areas.
Myers, 58, who comes to Atlantic City about twice a year, said she was acclimated to Yonkers and Saratoga -- smoke-free racetracks with slot machines in her home state.
There was mixed reaction yesterday to a full smoking ban among some other patrons of the seaside resort.
"That would be ugly," Victor Farrell, 36, of Richmond, Va., said of a full ban's becoming law.
Farrell, a smoker, had settled behind a slots machine in a designated smoking room at the Tropicana. "I'd probably not come here as often, and look for somewhere else, like Las Vegas, that allows smoking," he said.
But Chris Thomas of Pittsburgh, a city that has implemented a smoking ban in restaurants, bars and other places, had another opinion.
"As a nonsmoker, I don't mind smoking lounges," said the 35-year-old physician who was sitting in a nonsmoking section of the casino. "I'm in favor of putting all the smokers in one room so they can all smell like smoke. Let them all squeeze in there."
Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or [email protected]
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