Smoking is back in Atlantic City, for now By Ken Adams, CDC Gaming Reports July 11, 2021 at 7:28 pm The Fourth of July in Atlantic City was different in 2021 than in 2020. Last year, the casinos reopened on July 2nd and 3rd, except for Borgata. Borgata waited for three more weeks. The casinos opened under heavy restrictions. The number of customers was limited to 25 percent of full capacity. Social distancing and masks were required. Smoking and indoor food and beverage service were not allowed and there was no live entertainment, all by order of Governor Phil Murphy. With the country still firmly in the grips of the pandemic, there was not much to celebrate. But both the casinos and their customers were glad to get back into action again after 108 days, regardless of the restrictions. This year on July 4th, those restrictions were dim memories. The restaurants and bars were open and live entertainment was back. Fireworks lit the sky over both the Boardwalk and the Marina. And as a special treat, people could once again smoke in a casino for the first time in more than a year. Governor Murphy lifted the ban and the other remaining health restrictions as the health emergency officially ended. Smoking in casinos in Atlantic City is still limited to 20 percent of the casino floor, as it was before the pandemic. But over the three-day holiday, gamblers could go to a restaurant, have a drink, and afterwards walk to a designed area and smoke a cigarette. Shutterstock The end of the smoking ban was popular with casino-going smokers and casino operators. It was not popular for many others. There was considerable pressure for Governor Murphy to permanently ban smoking in the casinos. He resisted. It would have been a big step for him politically. However, he did indicate that if the New Jersey Legislature passed a bill banning smoking, he might be supportive. Banning smoking is never popular with casino owners and in New Jersey, casinos exercise considerable political muscle. Yet, as the 20 percent restriction shows, the anti-smoking lobby has some political muscle of its own. Casinos are legal in 25 states, but only nine have completely banned smoking; Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and South Dakota. The other states allow it, although sometimes only in restricted areas. Smoking in public places has been increasingly unpopular. As of 2018, 26 states had bans on indoor smoking that included all workplaces, grocery stores, restaurants and bars. Ten other states carved out an exception for casinos and some other businesses. And in a small number of states, such as Louisiana, it is a local issue. There is no single rule, not nationally or even within any given state. The movement to ban smoking in public places ran out of steam during the Great Depression; except for new casino jurisdictions, legislation prohibiting smoking in casinos stopped in 2007-08. Business was already so bad that there was little appetite among lawmakers to impose additional difficulties. Prohibiting smoking does cause revenue loss for casinos. In the past, casinos have lost between 15 and 20 percent of their revenue when smoking was banned. Whether or not that is temporary and the business returns over time is currently a matter of opinion, not fact. However, the pandemic led to a renewal of anti-smoking efforts. The closing of the casinos in the country changed the dynamics of the debate. As the casinos reopened, state by state, with mask requirements, most states imposed a smoking ban. Wearing a mask and smoking cigarettes are not complimentary actives. As long as masks were required, smoking bans made sense. However, mask wearing appears to be over everywhere, including casinos. And with the end of masking comes the end of smoking bans. There are some exceptions. After remaining shut down longer than any state or other tribe, the Navajo Nation reopened its largest casino for the first time since March 2020 on July 12th. The Navajo Nation has been more cautious than any other government entity in the country. When the tribe finally opened its casinos and parks, it kept the mask and social-distancing requirements. Several other individual tribes have kept smoking bans in place, even while lifting all other restrictions. The fact that some tribes decided to permanently ban smoking after the pandemic was not lost on Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights. The organization, joined by casino labor unions and other like-thinking organizations, are pressing their case. Demonstrations were held in Atlantic City and other casino jurisdictions. The group has asked at least one major sports league to join them in putting an end to smoking in casinos. It will be an uphill battle, but the effort probably stands its best chance in Atlantic City. Smoking was banned for a full year already and the governor is signally his willingness to sign a non-smoking bill. But every state will be different. Nevada will probably be the last state to prohibit smoking in casinos. Although Nevada does not allow smoking in other public places, casinos are a kind of sacred cow, or golden goose, in Nevada. However, the culture of smoking is changing and in time Nevada, too, will change. Fifty years ago, 60-70 percent of the adult population of the country smoked; anecdotally, every gambler smoked. When I first started working in a casino, employees were given two packages of cigarettes a day. The employees were expected to share their cigarettes with any customer who wanted one. The employees smoked while they worked, the gamblers smoked while they played. It did not seem strange or unusual, but that world is gone. In place of a world where everyone smokes, today we live in a world where smoking is rare. In 2021, less than 15 percent of the American population smokes and the percentage declines every decade. In 2021, people may be smoking again in casinos in Atlantic City. But by July 2031, or 2041, I doubt that people will be smoking in a casino in the entire county. The idea of permitting smoking because it is good for business will seem strange and archaic — as strange and archaic as giving employees cigarettes and allowing them to smoke on the job and share a smoke with customers.