ATLANTIC CITY - Smoke swirled around Barbara DePierro's head as she used one hand to puff on a cigarette and the other to play a slot machine at Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort.
DePierro, a New Yorker, settles into her cigarettes-and-slots routine whenever she comes to Atlantic City and dreads the thought that her gambling pleasures may someday be interrupted by a casino smoking ban.
"I like it the way it is now. If they banned smoking in Atlantic City, I would go to the Indian reservation casinos in Connecticut just to smoke," DePierro vowed as her husband, James, nodded his head in agreement.
A year after Atlantic City delayed a total smoking ban at the request of the powerful gaming industry, city officials are again debating whether the casinos should go smoke-free. City Council backed away from a ban last year amid warnings that smokers would take their business elsewhere, further depressing casino earnings in the soft economy.
But council members also promised then to revisit the issue in a year. Just as it was on Oct. 8, 2008 - when it voted 5-4 to scrap the smoking ban - council remains divided.
The timing of a new vote is unclear. On Friday, the City Clerk's Office released the agenda for the next council meeting on Wednesday and it did not include the smoking ban.
Councilman Dennis Mason argued it would be foolish to prohibit smoking in Atlantic City at a time when cigarette-puffing, cigar-chomping gamblers crowd casinos in other states.
"I'll be happy to support a 100 percent smoking ban if and when casinos in other states enact the same thing," he said. "All we want to be on is equal footing."
Mason supports the current law, which limits smoking to 25 percent of the casino floor. But Councilman Bruce Ward, an anti-smoking advocate, believes a total ban is the best way to protect casino workers and customers from the dangers of secondhand smoke.
"I'd like to see no smoke impacting the health of workers, or customers for that matter," he said.
Ward wants smoking restricted to the airport-style smoking lounges that casinos built off the gaming floor when the smoking ban temporarily went into effect for two weeks last year, before it was repealed.
Casinos complained that business declined dramatically during the two weeks of no smoking. Mark Juliano, chief executive officer of the three Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc. casinos, predicted that a smoking ban now would be catastrophic. He said the current law for casino smoking is a good compromise.
"We know we have plenty of statistics to show that a complete smoking ban would be a disaster," Juliano said. "As far as the status quo is concerned, we seem to think it is working for both customers and employees. It has become quite manageable for us."
The Casino Association of New Jersey, the trade group representing the gaming industry, said that thousands of jobs and millions in tax revenue could be lost if customers flee Atlantic City for smoke-friendly casinos in surrounding states.
"Since the economy has continued to deteriorate and our regional competitors continue to permit smoking in their casinos, the ability to continue to allow smoking on a portion of our casino floors is essential to avoid a further deterioration of our local economy," Joseph A. Corbo Jr., the association's president, said in a statement.
Stressing the health dangers of smoking, the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society are urging City Council to approve a total ban. They noted that New Jersey's 2006 Smoke Free Air Act protects the state's entire work force, with the exception of Atlantic City's casino employees.
"The American Heart Association believes it is time to offer casino employees the same protection that all other New Jersey workers enjoy," Corinne Wisniewski, director of advocacy for the heart association, said in a statement to council members.
Local 54 of UNITE-HERE, Atlantic City's largest casino union, argued that a smoking ban should be delayed for at least another year, while the economy recovers from the recession, to preserve jobs that might otherwise be lost if business sinks further.
"My membership clearly, without any ambiguity at all, is petrified of a 100 percent smoking ban," said Bob McDevitt, union president. "It could close the doors of casinos operating right now. ... To do something like that at this point in time, with all of the other challenges Atlantic City has, would be suicide."
Hardly surprising, casino customers are split on the issue. Smokers claim they have every right to light up, while nonsmokers say they don't want to be bothered by secondhand smoke.
"I can sit in the nonsmoking section and gamble or I can go in the smoking area and have a cigarette. I want that option," Marie Balandis, a 71-year-old smoker from Utica, N.Y., said while playing a slot machine in a nonsmoking section of Trump Taj Mahal.
A few yards away from Balandis, 22-year-old Lissette Jones, a respiratory care major at Long Island University, was also playing a slot machine in the nonsmoking section.
"I don't like smoking," Jones said. "When you walk through a smoking area and smell it, it's very irritating. I would like to see a smoking ban."
Then there are the DePierros, the New Yorkers who threaten never to come back to Atlantic City if a smoking ban is approved. Holding a pair of cigars, James DePierro gazed over his wife's shoulder while she smoked and played the slot machine.
"Smoking, drinking and gambling go together," he said. "If we can't do it here, then we'll go do it at the casinos in Connecticut."
Staff writer Emily Previti contributed to this report.
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