A hot cup of coffee, slot machine and an ashtray sit before George Martin — who has a cigarette perched on his lip — Tuesday morning. The 59-year-old is happy to take advantage of Harrah’s smoking section during his visit to Atlantic City.

“We’re not allowed to smoke where I’m from,” said Martin, of Dorr, Michigan. “But I wouldn’t mind if they got rid of it here too. I understand and actually I’m in favor. I can see how it can be an issue for some.”

About an hour later, roughly 100 people — casino workers and anti-smoking advocates — rallied outside the resort, chanting and hoisting signs pleading for Gov. Phil Murphy to demand a bill banning smoking in Atlantic City casinos.

Murphy was initially set to speak at the same resort for the second day of East Coast Gaming Congress, the second largest of its kind outside of Nevada according to the conference, but a spokesman said he shifted his speech to a virtual format due to the forecasted nor’easter storm.

Atlantic City’s nine casinos spent a year without smoking indoors due to a COVID restriction, which was lifted in July. Since then, pre-pandemic smoking rules have returned — possible due to an exemption of a 2006 state law which allows smokers to light up indoors in no more than 25% of a casino’s floor. Advocates have continued to speak out against what they call the “casino loophole,” an exception to the state’s law banning smoking in the majority of indoor places, including restaurants and bars.

“It’s inhumane they brought it back,” said protester Dottie Caudill, of Mays Landing, a casino worker for 34 years. “Everything was working just fine and now we’re back. Smoking doesn’t belong here, it’s not right for workers to have to inhale secondhand smoke, for children to be exposed to it.”

Casino Employees Against Smoking Effects, CEASE, member, Nicole Vitola, leads the protest outside of Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City, NJ demanding the passage of NJ Bill 1878, on Tuesday, October 26, 2021. Governor Phil Murphy was scheduled to speak at an unrelated event, but did not attend in person due to the weather forecast.Dave Hernandez | For NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

There is a bill in the state Legislature, S1878, that would permanently ban smoking in Atlantic City casinos, but it has yet to be posted for a vote. It would need to pass both the state Senate and the state Assembly before Murphy could sign it into law.

Tuesday’s rally was hosted by a group of casino staff organized under C.E.A.S.E. — Casino Employees Against Smoking’s (Harmful) Effects — which was formed in July in response to the lifting of the COVID smoking ban. It was the second protest after one was held earlier this year.

Like the first, demonstrators chanted, “A.C. smoke-free!” and “Smoking must cease!” Some waved black “No Smoking” flags and others held colorful signs reading, “Don’t take my breath away,” “2nd hand smoke is a joke” and “You need to protect us.” Atlantic County Republican Senator-select Vince Polistina was also in attendance in support of the legislation.

In a press conference prior to the march, C.E.A.S.E. group leaders said they hoped Murphy would call on Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin to take action on the bill. The Senate is currently in recess and not expected to be back until after the Nov. 2 election.

“I’m here to appeal to the leaders of this state to ask for humane treatment while we greet, service and cater to the millions of visitors that feed New Jersey’s economy every year,” Lamont White, a casino dealer since 1985, said during the press conference.

Other speakers from the group pointed to the negative health effects of smokers in casinos — saying that co-workers have been diagnosed with respiratory illnesses as a result of secondhand exposure.

When asked about Tuesday’s rally, a spokesman for the governor provided a comment he made during the September News12 edition of “Ask Governor Murphy.”

“I’ve said this unequivocally… If legislation comes to my desk that would ban smoking in casinos, you should assume that I will sign it,” Murphy said at the time.

“I’m thankful for Murphy’s promise, but that’s a big if, and kind words and empty promises are not going to help us. (He needs to tell) Senator Sweeney that he needs to bring Senate Bill 1878 to be voted on in a lame duck session, so it can finally be signed into law,” said casino dealer Nicole Vitola. “This needs to happen now. It’s only a matter of time until another one of us falls ill or dies from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke.”

Casino Employees Against Smoking Effects protest outside Harrah's Resort Atlantic City, to demand action from Governor, on October 26, 2021.

Atlantic County Republican Senator-select Vince Polistina urges protestors to continue to support NJ Bill 1878, outside Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City, NJ on Tuesday, October 26, 2021.Dave Hernandez | For NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Casinos in 20 states are smoke-free, according to non-profit, Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights.

The Casino Association of New Jersey, the trade group representing the Atlantic City casinos, said Tuesday, “Banning smoking completely and permanently would have long-term financial implications for the industry and the region, placing Atlantic City casinos at a competitive disadvantage with Pennsylvania casinos where smoking is permitted.”

The group also noted that a ban would result in fewer casino customers, jobs lost and ultimately, “a decline in tax revenue that benefits the state and local economy.”

Denise, who declined to give her last name, said she would be one of those customers.

“I would spend ten times less money if I couldn’t smoke in the casino. I’m constantly spending a whole day looking for a place to smoke and (banning it) would just mean I’d come much less,” said the 49-year-old Cleveland resident who typically visits Atlantic City at least once a year.

But anti-smoking advocates said Atlantic City casinos thrived despite the recent temporary smoking ban — generating 11% more in profits in the first quarter of 2021 than in the same period of 2019.

Patrick Ashton, a representative of the local union, United Auto Workers, said that after the successful returns, “the excuses are over.”

“There’s not one other job in the country that is exposed to poison as they work,” said Ashton. “We demand that action is done.”

A request for comment sent to Sweeney’s office was not immediately returned.

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Steven Rodas may be reached at [email protected].

(this story/news/article has not been edited by PostX News staff and is published from a syndicated feed)

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