Casino industry, workers argue merits of smoking ban in Superior Court

Porrino, arguing for industry: If smoking exemption is stricken, jobs will be lost and employees will be out of work

Some call the lawsuit filed by a group of Atlantic City casino workers to ban smoking in casinos the ultimate example of being able to legislate public health.

The Casino Association of New Jersey doesn’t see it that way. It feels such a ban not only would hurt the economics of its industry, it is not necessarily what those on the casino floor want.

Chris Porrino. (File photos)

In a case before Superior Court Judge Patrick Bartels that could have a huge impact on casino gambling in Atlantic City, Lowenstein Sandler’s Chris Porrino said the facts should guide the decision — and that the law approved by the Legislature should remain.

“The simple facts are that many people who gamble like to smoke,” he told the court.

“If the smoking exemption is stricken, jobs will be lost and employees will be out of work. They will lose their medical and other benefits. The conceivable justifications for the legislation are and were completely obvious.”

Porrino noted the industry is nearly 46 years old — and that it has had smoking for all but a few brief periods during its existence (including a short period of time during COVID).

Smoking is allowed on 25% of the casino floor in Atlantic City, but since those areas are not separated from the rest of the floor, secondhand smoke is present in varying degrees throughout the casino.

Nancy Erika Smith.

Attorney Nancy Erika Smith, of Smith Mullin, in a suit filed last month by the United Auto Workers, which represents dealers at the Bally’s, Caesars and Tropicana casinos, said the law is flawed.

“The purpose of the act is to protect workers from sickness and death,” she said. “(It) is not to put money in the casinos’ pockets. We are seeking to end a special law which does a favor for casinos and seriously harms workers.”

Smith also raised the issues of equal protection under the law, and what she called a constitutional right to safety.

Porrino pushed back.

“There is no constitutional right to safety,” he said.

“There is a difference between an individual having the freedom to pursue and obtain safety and happiness and the state having an obligation to guarantee the safety and happiness of its citizens. Of course, there is no constitutional guarantee to safety, just as there is no constitutional guarantee to happiness.”

Porrino said the special legislation and equal protection arguments also are flawed.

The case, he said, should be about the merits of the law — not the merits of smoking.

“There is no question that some disagree with the policy judgment of the Legislature to allow smoking in casinos, and, for that matter, to allow smoking in hotel rooms; to allow smoking in tobacco lounges; to allow smoking in houses; to allow smoking in cars; and to allow smoking in cannabis lounges, where nonsmokers are all exposed to secondhand smoke,” he said.

“But our elected officials struck what they believed was the most appropriate balance and have had the opportunity every year for 18 years since the act was passed to strike a different balance.  If the Legislature changes its collective mind and decides to strike a different balance, then the law will change.  If not, the law must stand, and plaintiffs’ complaint must be dismissed.”

Bartels did not immediately issue a ruling Monday, but he said he hopes to do so as quickly as possible.