TRENTON — The main group that represents casinos in the Garden State did not appear before lawmakers on Monday to share its view on the topic, but legislators heard from plenty of individuals who are against the proposal to extend New Jersey's Smoke-Free Air Act to gaming halls.

The Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee took two hours of testimony on legislation that would remove casinos' exemption from the state's prohibition on indoor.

The legislation has close to 80 primary and co-sponsors across the Senate and Assembly, on both sides of the political aisle, but hadn't seen the light of day until Monday, when the committee chaired by Sen. Joe Vitale, D-Middlesex, hosted the bill "for discussion only."

Before testimony began, Vitale told the crowd that he hopes to soon consider the bill for an actual vote.

"From my perspective, it's prehistoric, it's immoral, that the owners of the casinos think that it's OK for their employees to be expendable," Vitale said.

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Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer, a prime sponsor of the bill, said it's an insult to casino workers that smoking is prohibited on the boardwalk and beach right outside their doors, but not at the tables inside.

"Our goal is to go smoke-free in 2023," Turner said. "We cannot allow the casino industry in New Jersey to continue to put their profits over the health of our people."

Groups and residents want smoking in casinos ... for now

The Casino Association of New Jersey did not offer in-person testimony on Monday, but submitted a slip noting its opposition to S264.

The association has gone on the record about this topic multiple times, voicing concerns about the move's potential impact on revenue and jobs. Casino workers and lawmakers have been pushing for years for an indoor smoking ban in gaming halls.

In New Jersey, smoking is permitted on up to 25% of a casino floor.

Christina Renna, head of the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey, told the Senate panel on Monday that an all-out ban is inevitable and "probably the right thing to do." But, she said, now is not the time.

"The casinos have not returned to pre-pandemic levels," she said of brick-and-mortar foot traffic. "Additionally, there's a recession potentially right around the corner."

The conversation about this legislation today is different than just a few years ago, she added, with the opening of Live! casino in Philadelphia, conveniently located on the other side of the Walt Whitman Bridge.

"Gamblers will stay in Pennsylvania to gamble, and New Jersey gamblers will drive over the bridge to gamble," an Atlantic City resident told the panel.

According to Vitale, prior to the hearing, hundreds of slips were submitted to the committee in support of or in opposition to the bill. Many members of CEASE (Casino Employees Against Smoking Effects) were on hand for the discussion, including co-founder Lamont White.

"As dealers, we can never walk away when the smoke gets too thick and our eyes are burning and breathing is difficult," White said. "Our job requires us to stand there and take it."

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