Gamblers fired up over proposal to ban smoking on casino floors - Saturday 12th of March 2005

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- A smoking ban? In casinos?

Sitting at a Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino slot machine, cigarette in hand, Robin Cancelli considered the question and quickly dismissed it.

"It goes together: smoking, drinking and gambling," said Cancelli, 48, of Grafton, Mass., pausing at a Jeopardy slot machine Tuesday afternoon. "If they did that, we'd probably stop coming."

That's what casinos are afraid of.

Already fighting plans for video lottery terminals at Meadowlands Racetrack, New Jersey's casino industry is suddenly facing an equally scary proposition _ a statewide smoking ban that would force smokers to pick up their coin cups and walk outside if they want to light up.

A bill to ban smoking in indoor, public places is moving through the Legislature, and casinos would be among those affected. Supporters say the ban is needed to clear the air in restaurants, bars and gambling halls, sparing workers and non-smokers from secondhand smoke.

Casino executives say a smoking ban would frighten business away from Atlantic City's $4 billion-a-year industry, cutting revenues by up to 15 percent and leading to the loss of 5,000 jobs.

Some smokers say they would stop coming; some would spend less money in the casino if they had to walk away from their slot machine or table game every time they felt the urge.

"They'd curtail their play because they'd have to run out for a cigarette every 20 minutes and they might start thinking, `Oh, maybe I'm losing too much' or `Maybe I should quit playing,"' said casino expert William Thompson, a professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

Newer casinos have sophisticated ventilation systems to clean the air, but that doesn't help dealers and other employees, he said.

"The industry isn't very nice to dealers. They say `Tolerate it, it's part of the job,"' Thompson said.

For years, dealers and other casino employees have complained about secondhand smoke, with some even filing civil suits against the casinos in hopes of getting them to ban smoking.

"When you leave, your clothes smell like cigarettes and cigars," said Trish Quintana, 49, a veteran dealer at Caesars Atlantic City Hotel Casino. "You can taste it in your mouth. I've never been a smoker but I feel like I am."

Janet Caouette, a Trump Plaza gambler, said she favors a proposed smoking ban even when casinos offer no-smoking areas.

"Even to get to the no-smoking part, you have to walk through the smoke. Just walking through it bothers me," said Caouette, 62, of Oxford, Mass.

But many gamblers want to smoke, and the casinos they play in don't want to alienate them.

"I like to be relaxed when I'm losing money," said Maureen Crea, 50, of Scranton, Pa., who was playing the slots at Caesars on Tuesday. "Let the smoking go on!"

"If people are willing to come here and blow their money, they should be able to smoke if they want," said Camille Zaferes, 55, of New York, smoking a cigarette as she waited for a valet to bring her car around at Trump Plaza. "I'm not going to come here and dump my money if I can't. I'll just go to Vegas."

If experience is any indication, Atlantic City would lose some business from a smoking ban, at least initially.

In 2002, Delaware enacted an indoor smoking ban that included the state's three racinos _ racetracks that have slot machines. In the ensuing year, revenues that had been growing by about 9 percent annually fell by 11 percent, according to Edward Sutor, chief operating officer for Dover Downs Slots in Dover, Del.

To compensate, Dover Downs, Delaware Park and Midway Slots all built outdoor pavilions _ small, enclosed structures, some with canvas roofs _ to give smokers a place to light up.

Sutor, who worked in Atlantic City casinos for 20 years, said Atlantic City's casinos will certainly suffer if the ban is enacted.

"There'll be an initial shock. They'll lose business to other jurisdictions, like we lost it to West Virginia. But as time goes by, people will get used to it," Sutor said.

The only smoke-free casino in the nation is the Taos Mountain Casino in Taos, N.M., according to the American Gaming Association.

New Jersey's smoking ban bill, which initially contained an exemption for casinos, is gaining momentum in Trenton, thanks in part to the support of acting Gov. Richard J. Codey, who has so far resisted the pleas from Atlantic City.

"The governor thinks it makes sense to do a comprehensive ban, not a piecemeal one," said Codey spokeswoman Kelley Heck.

But some wonder whether the state is using the smoking ban bill as leverage to get Codey's video lottery proposal _ a $150 million boost to the state budget _ approved, or vice versa.

"It looks that way," said Rider University political science professor David Rebovich. "Odds are, he's not going to get both."

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