New Jersey Judge to Issue Casino Smoking Decision ‘Quickly’

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A New Jersey Superior Court judge on Monday pledged to work “as quickly as possible” in reaching a ruling regarding a lawsuit brought by the United Auto Workers (UAW) and a grassroots coalition of Atlantic City casino workers challenging the state’s permittance of indoor smoking on gaming floors.

Atlantic City casino workers protest New Jersey’s ongoing allowance of indoor smoking outside a Trenton courthouse on April 5, 2024. A New Jersey judge this week pledged to issue a ruling on a lawsuit challenging the state’s indoor smoking law “as quickly as possible.” (Image: AP)

The UAW and CEASE — Casino Employees Against Smoking’s Effects — in April filed a lawsuit naming Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and state Health Commissioner Kaitlan Baston as defendants.

The litigation challenges the constitutional legality of New Jersey’s 2006 Smoke-Free Air Act that allows Atlantic City casinos to designate up to 25% of their gaming floor space for tobacco use.

Superior Court Judge Patrick Bartels heard testimony on Monday from both sides of the debate. Bartels assured he would work swiftly to reach a decision.

Casino Smoking Arguments

Attorneys representing the UAW and CEASE told Bartels that the state’s indoor air act unjustly threatens the health of a faction of employees who have been forced to work in dangerous smoke-filled environments. While casino workers might have known that smoking was allowed when they agreed to be hired, much has been learned over the nearly two decades since the state law was implemented about just how toxic secondhand smoke is.

Union attorney Nancy Erika Smith said workers’ health should reign supreme in Bartels’ decision — not the bottom lines of large casino corporations.

The purpose of the [2006] Act is to protect workers from sickness and death — not to put money in the casinos’ pockets,” she testified. “We are seeking to end a special law which does a favor for casinos and seriously harms workers.”

Smith added that all workers, including casino employees, under the New Jersey Constitution have an equal right to safety.

Chris Porrino, an attorney representing the Casino Association of New Jersey (CANJ), the trade group that lobbies for the interests of the nine Atlantic City casinos in Trenton, argued Smith’s claim is wrong. Porrino said the state constitution provides New Jerseyans the right to “pursue” freedom and personal safety but the state has no obligation to guarantee it.

There is a difference,” Porrino declared. “There is no constitutional guarantee to safety, just as there is no constitutional guarantee to happiness.”

Porrino said state lawmakers did their best in crafting the smoking law.

Our elected officials struck what they believed was the most appropriate balance and have had the opportunity every year for 18 years to strike a different balance,” Porrino said. “If the legislature changes its collective mind and decides to strike a different balance, then the law will change. If not, the law must stand, and plaintiffs’ complaint must be dismissed.”

Murphy has been supportive of a smoking ban but his tune has changed recently in voicing concerns about the economic impact of such a regulatory adjustment. Murphy last month also said he favors allowing the matter to be resolved in the legislature — not a courtroom.

Bills to amend the smoking law have sat in the legislature for months without action. 

Critical Decision

CANJ and Unite Here Local 54, which represents non-gaming resort workers, believe a smoking ban will reduce gaming revenue and lead to widespread layoffs. At least a casino or two would be at risk of closing, the defendants argued.

New Jersey Deputy Attorney General Robert McGuire, representing Murphy in the matter, agreed with Porrino that the state constitution does not guarantee people’s safety. McGuire added that a smoking ban would likely cost many casino workers their jobs, and reduced income could similarly threaten their health.

It has a net effect on the health of New Jersey citizens because those families that lose their jobs may not be able to pay for food,” McGuire said. “They will lose their medical benefits.”

McGuire also highlighted that the state’s Casino Revenue Fund, which receives 8% of the casinos’ annual gross gaming revenue, directs considerable financial resources to health programs for seniors and the disabled. He said a smoking ban would reduce that health benefit.

CEASE pointed to independent research that has suggested that smoking bans help, not hurt, casino business, as smoking rates continue to decline.

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