Light Up! Smoking Back in AC Casinos

After a month of fresh air inside Atlantic City's 11 casinos, gamblers will be allowed to light up again.

A temporary smoking ban expired at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, and smoking will be permitted for at least the next year.

Gladys Bryan of Philadelphia can't wait. Standing on the Boardwalk outside the Atlantic City Hilton Casino Resort (one of two casinos that forced its gamblers to go outside to smoke during the ban), she complained about having to leave a hot slot machine that had been paying off for her in order to grab a smoke just outside the casino door.

"I have my mother in there now keeping it warm for me," said the 62-year-old woman. "I would love to not have to do that."

In April of this year, the City Council enacted a total smoking ban on the gambling floor of all 11 casinos. It was cheered by many casino workers worried about their health, as well as by anti-smoking groups.

But casino operators and many gamblers who smoke decried the ban, saying it would drive customers away in droves.

In the interim, the financial meltdown rocked the economy and led to even steeper declines at the casinos, which have laid off hundreds of workers since the year began. The council changed its mind and agreed to repeal the smoking ban for at least a year.

But because it did so at the last moment, it could not legally stop the ban from taking effect on Oct. 15. Ashtrays were collected and stacked up in casino corners, "no smoking" signs went up atop slot machines, and walled-off smoking lounges opened in 9 of the 11 casinos.

Many casino employees said it was a joy not to have gamblers blow smoke in their faces, not to experience the burning eyes, stinging throats and smelly clothes that come with working in smoking areas.

But many smokers were put off, and vowed to take their money elsewhere if the ban continued.

The ban will end Sunday, and the situation will again revert to what it was before, where smoking is restricted to no more than 25 percent of the gambling floor.

The situation will be reviewed in a year to see if the economy has improved enough to put a total ban back in place.

Arthur Kaler, a 25-year dealer at Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, felt betrayed by the council's reversal.

"If we are here next year to revisit the smoking ban and I have fallen victim to lung cancer, will each of you look my family in the eyes?" he asked council members at a recent meeting. "Tell them how brave I was to fight secondhand smoke every day to save the economy of New Jersey. A ballpark or street could be dedicated in my honor, and my family can be bestowed a plaque."

Mark Juliano, CEO of Trump Entertainment Resorts, said a total smoking ban would further cripple an already struggling industry in Atlantic City.

"It's just one more negative factor the industry can't absorb right now," he said.

J. Carlos Tolosa, eastern division president of Harrah's Entertainment Inc., which owns four casinos here, said the smoking ban had an obvious impact on October revenues.

For the first 15 days of the month, when smoking was still allowed, slot revenues were down 12 percent. For the second 15 days, when a total smoking ban was in place, slot revenues plunged 20 percent.

So far this year, the casinos have won $3.9 billion, down 6.6 percent from the same period last year. This year will be the second in a row that revenues have declined in Atlantic City, after 28 years of consecutive increases.

Besides the worsening national economy, Atlantic City is fighting fierce competition from slots parlors in Pennsylvania and New York, which have only partial restrictions on smoking. The Indian-run casinos in Connecticut place no restrictions on smoking.

Voters in Maryland just approved 15,000 slot machines, which could further eat into Atlantic City's customer base.

Tolosa said it will take time for Atlantic City casinos to gain back their smoking customers who have taken their business elsewhere over the past month.

"I don't think it will happen all at one time," he said. "I think it will be gradual."

Likewise Juliano predicted a slow return to normalcy.

"At least now we're back on an even playing field," he said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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