|By Jacqueline L. Urgo, The Philadelphia
InquirerMcClatchy-Tribune Business News
Dec. 30, 2006 - ATLANTIC CITY -- The Atlantic City Council yesterday gave preliminary approval to a measure banning smoking on casino floors, unanimously endorsing a move to make this the biggest gambling spot in the nation to go smoke-free.
The pending law, which could take effect as early as April 15, is being watched closely because of the possibility that it will send gamblers elsewhere -- or inspire other states to follow suit.
The City Council was spurred to act because a statewide ban on smoking inside public places that went into effect last April 15 exempted casino gaming floors. That exemption left 41,000 casino employees exposed to the effects of secondhand smoke, said Tom Duffy, executive vice president of the New Jersey chapter of the American Cancer Society.
"These are people whose rights, and health, need to be protected like anyone else's," said Duffy, whose group has pushed hard for a local ban.
Lawmakers said the exemption was made to help protect the state's $5 billion-a-year gaming industry from competition in nearby states like Connecticut and New York, where casinos and smoking coexist. Smoking is also allowed inside Nevada casinos, but some gaming halls there already have gone smoke-free voluntarily.
Pennsylvania has licensed slot-machine parlors at 11 sites in nine municipalities, including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. They are subject to local smoking bans, including Philadelphia's.
Joseph A. Corbo Jr., executive director of the Casino Association of New Jersey, an industry group that represents the interests of the casinos, said New Jersey's casinos could lose up to 20 percent of their annual revenue and more than 3,400 jobs if the ban takes effect.
But others say that continuing to allow smoking on casino floors ultimately would cost more in lives.
"It's poetic justice that we will implement this law one year exactly after the New Jersey Legislature presented the state with a flawed law banning smoking," said City Council Vice President Eugene Robinson, who pushed for the casino smoking ban. "It was flawed legislation because casinos were left out of the ban."
While the smoking ban in casinos had been debated for months -- including at two public hearings held by the City Council -- more than 300 people packed the council's meeting room yesterday afternoon prepared to make statements.
The ordinance had been scheduled for a second and final reading. If it had been approved, the casinos would have had 30 days to comply.
But the meeting ended quickly after Robinson, along with Councilmen G. Bruce Ward and John Schultz, said that -- because the casinos had lobbied for more time to bring their facilities into compliance -- they were prepared to amend their proposal to give the casinos a compliance deadline of April 15. Because the amendment was added, the council could not give the ordinance final approval; that vote was set for Jan. 24.
Corbo said his group would take the nearly four weeks before the final vote to keep making its pitch to the City Council that there could be a way to minimize workers' exposure to secondhand smoke without a wholesale smoking ban.
Corbo did not rule out the possibility of litigation, even with an April 15 start for a ban.
"A legal challenge is always a possibility," he said. "But for us, it's the possibility of last resort."
Vincent Rennich, 48, of Somers Point, a nonsmoker who was diagnosed with lung cancer a year ago and has worked on the floor of the Tropicana Casino & Resort for 25 years, applauded the smoking ban.
"This is something that can make a real difference in people's lives," Rennich said. "We've known for a long time that smoking can kill you, but now we are finally seeing the laws catch up with that knowledge. It might already be too late for me, but someone else will be saved by this."
Others, however, caution that the ban could have a profoundly negative effect in Atlantic City.
"What really concerns the gaming industry is not that they will lose business because of the smoking ban in Atlantic City, but that they will lose business to other casinos in neighboring states where smoking isn't an issue," said Joseph S. Weinert, vice president of international gaming consultancy for the New Jersey-based Spectrum Gaming Group. "They now want to see an even playing field for all of North America. People all over the world are watching what the effect of this ban will be."
And so are some casino customers.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," said Frank Zitto, 52, a retired pipefitter from Northeast Philadelphia, who was playing blackjack at Caesars Casino Hotel yesterday as the City Council was deciding the fate of smokers.
"I smoke and I gamble. I like to do both at the same time. The slots in Philly don't cut it for me because I play blackjack and craps," said Zitto with a sigh, taking a long pull on a Winston as he spoke. "Maybe I'll go to New York or Connecticut instead. Maybe I'll make a New Year's resolution to quit smoking."
This article contains material from the Associated Press.
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