Atlantic City Could Lose Signature Smoky Ambience

Even as cities and states pass anti-smoking laws, tobacco users have always had at least one last venue for their vice: the casino. But the smoke-filled gambling den could make its final retreat Friday in New Jersey as Atlantic City's city council votes on whether to clear the air.

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From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY.

As new smoking bans go into effect around the country, tobacco users have had a at least one oasis - casinos.

New Jersey lawmakers even provided an exemption for gambling halls, when they passed their statewide ban early this year. But now, Atlantic City is considering clearing out the air.

NPR's Robert Smith reports.

ROBERT SMITH: Walking into an Atlantic City casino, the smoke sticks to you like a pasty on a showgirl. The hazy air, the low ceilings, the ding of the slot machines - it's all part of the sleazy ambience.

Ali Amez(ph) lights up a Marlboro after losing a few hands of Black Jack.

Mr. ALI AMEZ: Nice. You got to smoke some time, you know. It's too much stress when you're gambling.

SMITH: Even as an anti-smoking political wave swept over the state last year, no one was able to separate the gambler from his smokes. The casinos in Atlantic City bring in $5 billion of business a year, and politicians were willing to let them do whatever they wanted. That is until Atlantic City elected Bruce Ward to the council. He's a healthcare lawyer and unfortunately for the casinos -

Mr. BRUCE WARD (Atlantic City Council): I was a former smoker in high school. I thought it was cool. But I've quit smoking maybe, 40 years ago.

SMITH: And Ward found a loophole that allowed the city to do what the state wouldn't - ban smoking in casinos.

Regina Carlson is with the New Jersey Group Against Smoking Pollution.

Ms. REGINA CARLSON (Executive Director, Group Against Smoking Pollution, New Jersey): This is big. The casinos are like the last gasp, really, we've got here in New Jersey and in much of the world - restaurants, work places, public places, bars. But the idea that the casinos have been putting out is you can't do it here. Well now, we've proven you can; that it's going to reverberate around the nation and around the world.

SMITH: Over the last few months, the council has been bombarded with studies about the air quality in the casinos - it's bad. And from the casinos, the effect on there bottom line - also bad.

At Atlantic City council meetings, dealers like Jennifer Gillerman(ph) and Anthony Serafino(ph) have shared stories from the last workplace in New Jersey still filled with smoke.

Ms. JENNIFER GILLERMAN (Casino Dealer, Atlantic City): Strangely enough, I had to wait for a player to win a bet. Then I ask him really nicely and gently, excuse me, can you just hold that down. But for some strange reason, that stream of smoke comes right back in our faces.

Mr. ANTHONY SERAFINO (Casino Dealer, Atlantic City): I realize that most of us in this room, our livelihoods depend on the casinos, and the money that they generate. But if we're not here to enjoy the cash, it's not doing us any good.

SMITH: But Joseph Corbeau, head of the Casino Association of New Jersey, told the council that if the players go elsewhere, nobody benefits.

Mr. JOSEPH CORBEAU (Casino Association of New Jersey): It's a competitive issue because we have the emerging jurisdictions of Pennsylvania and New York. They permit smoking on their casino floor.

SMITH: The Atlantic City Council is scheduled to vote tomorrow on the ban, and if it's passed, it could go into effect in 20 days, not enough time, the casinos say, to create special smoking patios, or even to educate their customers.

The Trump Casino in the slot room, Gabe Duretta(ph) is a pro at balancing a cigarette in one hand, and pulling the lever with the other. I can't interview him inside, so I follow him through the table games, down the escalator, past the restaurants and bars, and out to the Boardwalk. Everything about a casino is designed to keep people inside and gambling.

Mr. GABE DURETTA: The casinos are going to lose money. You're going to have more people hanging out outside, than you will, sitting at the machines, or at the tables.

SMITH: And it just occurred to me, it's not as easy to go outside as it is at a restaurant, you got to go like two blocks to get outside one of these casinos.

MR. DURETTA: Yes. Yes, you do. Maybe a lot of people will stay away.

SMITH: But as much as Duretta grumbles about a smoking ban, he says that he'll still show up in Atlantic City, and take a cigarette outside if he has to. Being a smoker in the 21st century, you learn to accept the hands you're dealt.

Robert Smith, NPR News.

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