ATLANTIC CITY - Despite repeated and impassioned pleas by casino workers and health advocates, the Atlantic City Council last night backed off a total casino smoking ban. Instead, in a 7-2 vote, the council gave preliminary approval to a compromise ordinance that would allow smoking on 25 percent of the casinos' floors.
A final vote on the ordinance is expected Feb. 7.
Until just a few days ago, the workers and their advocates expected the council to approve a total ban on smoking, based on earlier votes.
"This is not a compromise. This is a capitulation," said Ray Mazzoli, a casino worker and Atlantic City resident. "When did you become so scared? When did you become so impotent?"
City Councilman Dennis Mason, who arrived at the compromise with casino officials at the request of Council President William Marsh, called the amended ordinance a "win-win." He told those in the packed council chambers that the casino industry would probably have challenged a total ban, delaying a curb on the smoking hazard possibly for years.
He also said some of the smoking sections will be lounges, not staffed gaming areas.
Joseph A. Corbo Jr., executive director of the Casino Association of New Jersey, testified that the compromise "gives us the opportunity to mitigate the economic concerns" that could adversely affect employment.
In recent weeks, Corbo had said that going smoke-free could cost the casinos up to 20 percent of their annual revenues and lead to the loss of up to 3,400 jobs. The casinos did not rule out a court challenge before the compromise.
However, the vast majority of last night's speakers weren't buying the economic necessity of the relaxed ban or the compromise.
"The amended version will create more dangerous environments, intolerably dangerous environments," said Regina Carlson, executive director of NJ GASP (Group Against Smoking Pollution).
She also said that "it caters to the unfounded fears of the casinos."
Mason had testified that, if the ordinance is adopted, working in the smoking sections will be voluntary.
Helena Rafferty, a casino dealer, testified that she didn't think there would be enough volunteers to work in the smoking areas and that people might lose their jobs.
"I'm tired of being sick," Rafferty said. "I'm tired of burying our dealers."
Representatives of groups such as the American Cancer Society spoke last night in favor of a total smoking ban. Robin Williams, senior regional director of advocacy for the American Heart Association, said the group would try to appeal to the City Council and, if that fails, to the state Legislature or even the courts.
On Dec. 29, the City Council gave unanimous preliminary approval to banning smoking in the casinos.
The local ordinance was intended to close a loophole left for the casinos in state legislation enacted April 15 banning smoking inside New Jersey public places. State lawmakers said the exemption was made to help protect New Jersey's $5 billion-a-year gaming industry from competition in neighboring states.
Voting against the compromise last night were Council Vice President Eugene Robinson and G. Bruce Ward. Ward had said earlier that he believed the compromise came from "pressure from the casinos." Robinson, over his shirt and tie, wore an orange T-shirt like those worn by protesting casino workers.