Casino smoking ban may be delayed
By DONALD WITTKOWSKI Staff Writer, 609-272-7258
Published: Friday, October 03, 2008
ATLANTIC CITY - Plans to make Atlantic City the first major casino market in the country completely smoke-free may be delayed amid warnings by Donald Trump and other gaming executives that it could devastate business.
City Council, at its meeting Wednesday, is expected to debate and possibly vote on whether to hold off having the smoking ban take effect Oct. 15. Mayor Scott Evans said he would be open to delaying the ban, but will leave the decision to council.
Evans noted that by postponing the ban, Atlantic City may be able to preserve jobs and protect the casinos from the nation's unfolding economic crisis. But he added that casino employees would continue to be exposed to the dangers of secondhand smoke.
Councilman Marty Small, whose ward includes five of the city's 11 casinos, said he has had discussions with gaming representatives about possibly suspending the smoking ban until the economy gets stronger.
"I have an open mind," Small said. "We have to do what is in the best interests of Atlantic City as a whole. Casinos pay 80 percent of our taxes and provide thousands of jobs for city residents.
"It is a sensitive issue on both sides," he continued. "We have to worry about the workers' health, but we also have an economic crisis in the country that has trickled down to this city."
Casinos are predicting the smoking ban will cause an additional 5 percent drop in gaming revenue on top of the 5.2 percent decline so far this year. The fear is smokers will flee from Atlantic City to Pennsylvania, Connecticut and other competing casino markets that allow gamblers to light up.
"The smoking ban will have a huge, negative impact on Atlantic City - beyond any competition, beyond anything," Trump said. "All we can do is to ask the council to reconsider."
Trump warned a decline in gaming business will translate into the loss of millions of dollars in state casino-tax revenue for social programs benefiting New Jersey's senior citizens and disabled residents.
"I just hope for the best. But the smoking ban itself will take tens of millions of dollars of taxes away and will take tens of millions of dollars of aid away from senior citizens and all of the things that we're doing," Trump told reporters Thursday after a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the grand opening of a $255 million hotel tower at Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort.
Trump said he has already received about 15 calls from friends who complained they will no longer take gambling trips to Atlantic City because of the smoking ban.
"If you're a smoker, you have a problem," he said. "I hope the City Council is able to reconsider. This isn't for Donald Trump. This has nothing to do with me. But senior citizens and all of the big beneficiaries of Atlantic City are going to suffer greatly because of this ban. It's the only place in the United States with a full smoking ban, and it's going to be a disaster."
Evans, who headed a delegation of city officials attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony, seemed to agree with Trump.
"I believe that Donald Trump has a legitimate concern," the mayor said.
Although the ban prohibits smoking on the gaming floor, casino customers would be able to light up in lounges that contain no slot machines or gaming tables. Most of the casinos plan to build indoor lounges, but Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa has said its customers will have to go outside to smoke in weather-protected enclosures.
Mark Juliano, chief executive officer of Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc., the company that operates the three Trump casinos, said the gaming industry is unified in its belief that the smoking ban should be delayed.
"I think the most devastating thing is, if they are still allowed to smoke at casinos in Pennsylvania, it puts us at a very competitive disadvantage," Juliano said.
Smoking is allowed on 25 percent of the casino floor under a local law that took effect April 15, 2007. Last April, City Council voted to completely outlaw casino smoking starting Oct. 15. The historic vote followed intense lobbying by anti-smoking groups and warnings from casino unions that gaming employees are constantly at risk of secondhand smoke.
Milton Rosado, who oversees political issues for the United Auto Workers union, which represents casino dealers, said the labor group will vigorously oppose any attempt to delay the smoking ban.
"It's about the health, welfare and safety of the workers. The right thing to do is to stay with the smoking ban," Rosado said.
Dennis M. Farrell Jr., a gaming analyst for Wachovia Capital Markets, said City Council may have to delay the smoking ban to allow casinos to adjust their business models to the economic slowdown. Otherwise, some casinos may go out of business, he predicted.
"We believe there is a high probability that the Atlantic City marketplace could see more than one casino close its doors in the next two years, unless the full smoking ban is delayed or state relief is provided to these properties," Farrell wrote in a note to investors.
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