Casinos forced to build 'smoking lounges'

Apr 1, 2008 7:00 PM

Staff & Wire Reports | Atlantic City casinos must be wondering when their run of bad luck will end.

First it was the introduction of slot parlors in Pennsylvania and expanded gaming in neighboring states.

Then the economy took a downturn while financial markets tightened, thus restricting new development and capital improvement projects.

And, now it’s a smoking ban that many casino operators believe contributed to a 5.7 percent decline in gaming revenue last year.

Last week, a city ordinance originally designed to outlaw smoking in resort casinos was amended to limit smoking to non-gaming lounges.

Atlantic City casinos have 90 days to comply with the ordinance. If they don’t, there’s the threat of the City Council passing a full-blown ban on smoking in the casino.

"Smoking ends in 90 days," Councilman Bruce Ward told the Press of Atlantic City. "The casinos, however, will be allowed to construct smoking lounges similar to airport smoking lounges, but they will not have personnel in them."

The compromise is the second time City Council has fallen short in attempting to establish a full ban. In February 2007, a full ban was proposed but was watered down with amendments shortly after, allowing smoking on 25 percent of all city gaming halls, while the remaining space would be smoke-free.

The half-measure was dismissed by non-smoking advocates as a betrayal.

"It’s a step in the right direction," said Karen Blumenfeld of the New Jersey Group Against Smoking Pollution, known as GASP. "The trends are going toward a 100 percent full ban; that’s what the city needs to do. But this is a start."

As part of the city’s current partial smoking ban, casinos are required to build enclosed smoking rooms or lounges equipped with separate ventilation systems to keep smoke from drifting to other parts of the casino.

The casinos’ perceived inaction pushed Ward to draft a complete ban ordinance again, armed with three other supporting votes on the nine-member council and claiming to have others on the fence.

But as the days approached, it began to seem less likely that the ordinance would have the support it needed to get passed. Councilman George Tibbitt then met with some casino officials and began to work with Ward on the amendments.

"We will not sacrifice the health of our casino workers any longer," Tibbitt said Tuesday. "But I pushed for this because I don’t want to hurt the casinos."

When asked what the new amendments’ chances are to be passed, Ward simply said, "better."

Casinos blame the partial smoking ban as a major factor in the industry’s revenue decline last year. They are worried that more customers would be scared off if the city enacts a complete ban.

"(The) last thing the industry needs to face is the instability of the very city rule that already has brought new challenges to this market," J. Carlos Tolosa, president of Harrah’s Eastern Division, wrote to the mayor and City Council on Tuesday.