If timing is everything, let’s hit pause button on casino smoking ban

As the state continues to rebound from the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear that certain areas — as well as certain industries — have been harder-hit than others over the past two years. South Jersey has the unfortunate luck of being home to deeply impacted economic drivers, including the gaming industry, which has had a tremendous ripple effect on our workforce and economy.

During the peak of the pandemic, New Jersey’s brick-and-mortar casinos were closed for an unprecedented 108 days. During the three and a half months the state’s casinos were dark, it was estimated by the American Gaming Association that New Jersey lost millions in revenue while more than 26,000 workers — most of whom are from the seven most southern counties of New Jersey — were laid off, putting a massive dent in the state and regional economy.

Fast forward to today. Atlantic City’s casinos are open and operational, but still struggling to recover. In fact, land-based gaming revenues are down from 2019 and have yet to exceed pre-COVID levels. Additionally, due to the continued downturn in foot traffic, which is at a 20-year low, casinos have been unable to bring back the entirety of their workforce. These jobs are unique and incredibly industry-specific, making them exceptionally hard to replace. They also happen to disproportionally impact South Jersey residents, many of whom live in some of the poorest areas of the state, with limited transportation options hampering their ability to find work in a casino outside of New Jersey.

Given these stark realities, it is undeniable that any disruption to the current gaming model should be put on hold, including the proposed total smoking ban in New Jersey-based casinos. The impact of declining casino revenues is real and extends outward in direct and indirect ways to the regional and statewide economy. This is why it is imperative that policymakers do everything in their power to bolster the gaming industry, not stifle it with policies that will set the industry back — and could send players elsewhere.

A smoking ban would make New Jersey casinos an industry outlier among its competitors for casino patrons in the Northeast/mid-Atlantic region. Competition is fierce, with 32 casinos operating within a 150-mile radius of Philadelphia — many of which do not have full smoking bans. With more gaming competition, most notably a new casino in Philadelphia near the sports stadiums, population centers in Camden, Gloucester and Burlington counties, and other areas of southern New Jersey, all have a neighboring casino where smoking is allowed. Similarly, areas in North Jersey, such as Bergen County, have Connecticut-based casinos as an option, which also allow for smoking.

Without question, we all must be extremely mindful of the health and overall wellness concerns that have been expressed by casino employees. However, there must be balance between those concerns and the economic realities, which could lead to a job loss of 2,500 in the industry hitting South Jersey, once again, the hardest.

The Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey has historically been averse to government mandates on business, as well as policies that put our state at a competitive disadvantage over others economically. In this instance, a smoking ban would aggressively check both boxes, while disproportionally impacting the southern portion of New Jersey’s workforce and economy — all of which policymakers should be mindful of, should a smoking ban be considered by the Legislature.

If timing is everything, the facts are clear: This is not the time to support policies that will hamper a struggling flagship industry in South Jersey, one that is critical to the region’s economic success and revitalization of the state’s workforce. Let’s hit the pause button on this policy measure and focus on growing New Jersey’s economy, much of which is driven by a supported and successful casino industry.

Christina Renna is the CEO and president of the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey.