Acting New Jersey Governor Richard J. Codey may use the power the position he stumbled into when Gov. McGreevey resigned last year to push an aggressive anti-smoking agenda, which would even include banning smoking in New Jersey casinos.
Codey's flip-flop on the smoking ban has restaurants, casinos, and small business owners upset. The marketplace not the government should decide if it makes sense to allow people to smoke in certain areas, they contend.
The proposal to ban smoking in most public places had been stalled in the Legislature for years but has gained momentum since New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg won acting Gov. Codey over to the antismoking cause, lawmakers say. Codey, who had opposed the bill, has called for strengthening the smoking ban by including Atlantic City casinos, which the current legislation would exempt.
Their inclusion could be an attempt by Codey to pressure casino owners to relent in their opposition to his proposal to allow video slot machines at the Meadowlands Racetrack in North Jersey. South Jersey Democrats in the Assembly who have fought Codey's video-slots proposal also oppose the smoking ban.
"The governor is not singling out the casinos," Codey spokeswoman Kelley Heck said. "It's just the opposite. If there is going to be a statewide smoking ban, he wants it to be comprehensive."
The New Jersey Smoke-Free Air Act, sponsored by Sen. John Adler (D., Camden), would prohibit - with certain exceptions - smoking "in all enclosed indoor places of public access and workplaces."
Casinos and restaurants oppose the ban.
In addition to casino floors and casino bars, the current bill would exempt social or fraternal organizations, cigar bars and lounges that make at least 15 percent of their income from on-site tobacco sales, and tobacco retailers.
Sen. Joseph Vitale (D., Middlesex), chairman of the Senate's health committee, said he planned to amend the bill to include casinos at a Monday hearing. He said he expected the legislation to pass the panel and be posted for a full Senate vote as early as March 21.
A push in the Senate
Including casinos "has always been something I believed was the right health policy," Vitale said. "You can't say secondhand smoke is dangerous in one area of the state and not in another."
He said he had let Codey know the bill would be amended to "meet our shared vision" but noted that exemptions for social clubs and cigar bars probably would remain. Whether the governor's interest is connected to his video-slots proposal "is not my concern," Vitale said.
Similar legislation that already includes casinos has stalled in the Assembly because the Democratic leadership there does not support it, Vitale added.
Seven states, including New York and Delaware, have smoking bans. A ban in Rhode Island took effect last week.
"The fact that less progressive states have gotten ahead of New Jersey is embarrassing," Adler said. "Kentucky grows tobacco, but Lexington has banned smoking. New Jersey can learn a lesson from Kentucky."
'Race with Philadelphia'
In Philadelphia, City Council appears poised to implement a citywide ban. Legislation may be introduced on first reading today and could come to a final vote as soon as next Thursday.
"We're in a race with Philadelphia," said Peter Slocum, an advocate with the American Cancer Society.
The decision to include the casinos in the Senate bill was cheered by Alfred R. Ashford, chief medical officer with the American Cancer Society of New York and New Jersey.
"By including casinos in this measure, the governor and the Senate will rightly extend the same protections to all workers in New Jersey and ensure that a person's ability to make a living in our state is not tied to his or her level of tolerance for cancer-causing toxins in the workplace," Ashford said in a statement.
Casino advocates said a smoking ban could hurt gambling revenue.
Rhode Island, for example, exempted gambling areas, and the Dover Downs racetrack and casino reported a 24 percent drop in income during the first year of Delaware's smoking ban.
Many have concerns
Audrey S. Oswell, president and chief executive officer of Resorts Atlantic City and head of the Casino Association of New Jersey, did not respond to a request for comment.
Lawmakers representing South Jersey have united on behalf of casino interests in the last week, opposing Codey's plan to allow as many as 2,000 video slots at the Meadowlands, which is in East Rutherford, Bergen County.
Sen. William Gormley (R., Atlantic), a longtime champion of Atlantic City casinos and a staunch opponent of video slots, issued a one-sentence comment on the smoking legislation yesterday: "I'd like to talk to Dick Codey."
The New Jersey Restaurant Association opposes a smoking ban, fearing it will hurt business.
Deborah Dowdell, the association's president, said that if a ban was implemented, there must be no exceptions. "We support a level playing field," she said.
Dale Florio, a lobbyist for the restaurant association, called the antismoking advocates "zealots," and argued that the the issue should be determined by the marketplace.
"A restaurant is not a public place," Florio said. "It's a place where the public is invited. A restaurant should have some flexibility to run how it wants."
Anti-smoking proponents assembled data from states with smoking bans, showing that restaurant business has increased.
In Massachussetts, revenue from the state's 5 percent meal tax rose after a smoking ban took effect July 5.
New York City's restaurant and bar business also has surged since its smoking ban took effect in 2003, but the city has experienced a general resurgence after the recession and the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Heck, the governor's spokeswoman, said Codey had discussed New York's ban with Bloomberg.
"People are starting to get that a ban doesn't hurt the economy, and it doesn't hurt restaurants or bars. Maybe it hurts the dry-cleaning industry, because people don't stink anymore," said Adler, noting he was the son of a dry cleaner. "I'm glad New York and Philadelphia are leading New Jersey in the right direction."