Since reopening to the public in July, Atlantic City's nine casinos have been blocked from permitting their guests to smoke indoors, due to COVID-19 concerns.

Groups and lawmakers suggest this is the perfect time to make casinos 100% smoke-free for good. Gaming halls and simulcast facilities remain exempt from the New Jersey Smoke-Free Air Act, which took effect 15 years ago.

"All people, including employees at casinos, should be allowed to have clean, healthy air," said state Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer. "We have even passed legislation to ban smoking on beaches, which is outdoors."

Turner made her comments during a virtual press conference hosted by a number of anti-tobacco groups. They pointed to statistics that suggest most regular casino visitors prefer smokefree casinos.

"Even the most advanced air filtration systems are no match for a smoke-free indoor air environment that gaming employees and guests deserve," said Bronson Frick, director of advocacy with Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights.

Casinos in more than 20 other states, including Delaware, Maryland and New York, operate 100% smoke-free casinos, the groups said in a joint statement. Legislation exists in the New Jersey Senate and Assembly to remove the casino exemption from New Jersey's smoke-free law.

"Only about 13% of New Jersey adults currently use tobacco products," the groups said. "Casinos are currently smoke-free. There's no reason to roll back protections at a time when customers have become accustomed to smoke-free environments."

Late last summer, Gov. Phil Murphy almost permitted smoking to return at Atlantic City's casinos, but he quickly backtracked with his executive order before it went into effect ahead of Labor Day Weekend and kept the smoking ban in place.

In response to the call for a permanent smoking ban, the Casino Association of New Jersey said such a move would have a significant adverse effect on Atlantic City, including a decline in the number of customers, which would result in job loss and revenue loss.

"With the onset of the pandemic, independent experts reviewed our air filtration systems, confirming their effectiveness in exchanging large volumes of air and keeping the air quality fresh and clean," the association said in an email to New Jersey 101.5.

Profitability at the casinos plunged by more than 80% in 2020, when in-person gaming was prohibited for several weeks, compared to 2019.

Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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