To the chagrin of health advocates, no-smoking groups and casino employees, the City Council of Atlantic City is expected to consider a compromise smoking ordinance today that would permit smoking in 25 percent of the city's gaming floors.
Last month, the council gave unanimous preliminary approval to a measure that would have banned all smoking on casino gambling floors, closing an exemption left open in last year's statewide ban on smoking inside public places.
Spokesmen for the gaming industry claim going smokeless would mean the loss of revenue, customers and jobs. Casino workers and antismoking groups argue that secondhand smoke imperils casino workers and they dispute the casinos' financial-loss predictions.
"The introduction of this ordinance confirms that the health of the casinos' employees continues to take a backseat to Big Tobacco and the casino industry's exaggerated scare tactics," said Tom Duffy, an American Cancer Society vice president.
"The casinos and building trades have gotten to them," charged Regina Carlson, executive director of NJ GASP (Group Against Smoking Pollution), calling the proposed compromise "a death sentence for casino employees."
City Council President William Marsh said he asked Councilman Dennis Mason to talk to casino representatives about a compromise because he didn't want to take the chance of possible layoffs.
"I don't smoke and I detest it, but I didn't get elected to do what's good for me," Marsh said.
According to Marsh, the casinos proposed going 60 percent smoke-free, and he wanted 80 percent. The compromise, he said, would ban smoking on 75 percent of casino floors and allow smoking on the rest. If passed, the measure would take effect by April 15, with permanent smoke barriers installed within four to six months.
If the ordinance carries today, Marsh said a final vote could held Feb. 7.
In a printed statement yesterday, Casino Association of New Jersey president Joseph Corbo, who predicts a full-blown smoking ban would chase gamblers to other venues, spoke in support of the new proposed ordinance.
"While there will still be a significant economic impact and certainly significant costs involved with the implementation of this new ordinance, we believe that it will result in the loss of fewer local jobs than a complete smoking ban," Corbo said.
The compromise is getting its share of criticism.
"I can't be for it, no," said Councilman G. Bruce Ward, who blamed the new ordinance on "pressure from the casinos."
NJ GASP officials complained that neither the health groups nor the casino workers were party to the talks about the amended ordinance. Earlier discussions with the casinos about smoking lounges instead of smoking on the gaming floors went nowhere, said GASP.
Vincent Rennich, 48, a Tropicana Casino and Resort games-table supervisor who has been treated for lung cancer, said he felt "betrayed" by the compromise ordinance.
"We were so close and they pulled the rug out from under us," he said. "We'll have to keep fighting until we win."
Kim Hesse, 46, a dealer with Caesars Atlantic City, said she'd give up her job before working in the concentrated fumes of the casino floors that would be set aside for smokers.
"That would be a death chamber," Hesse said. "Now it's like slow death."
Casino-industry insiders and antismoking advocates continue to spar over the financial impact a total smoking ban would have on the casinos.
Joseph Weinert, a vice president with the Spectrum Gaming Group, a gambling-industry consultant based in Atlantic City, said the combination of a total smoking ban and the growing competition from nearby states would reduce Atlantic City gambling revenues "at best" by 3.7 percent.
In Delaware, after the state enacted its smoking ban, there was approximately a 10 percent loss of revenue, plus the loss of its 10 percent growth rate, according to Weinert.
NJ GASP officials, however, point to a recent letter from Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner stating, "Delaware's three slot-machine casinos have all experienced their highest revenue periods in the last two years."
And they noted some of Atlantic City's competition will be nonsmoking.
One thing they did agree on: More and more gambling halls are going smoke-free.