NJ lawmakers meet today to close the loophole that permits smoking in casinos.
Twenty years ago, before I made a name in NJ politics legalizing weed and gay rights, I joined the movement to ban indoor smoking. Keeping cigarettes out of indoor spaces was, in fact, my gateway into NJ politics.
I wrote about living in California when America’s very first smoking ban kicked in on New Years Day, 1998. I was a cigarette smoker and quick to gripe about the new law to anyone who’d listen. I resented not being able to smoke at bars because it seemed like an integral part of the “going out” experience. But it wasn’t long before my attitude on the smoking ban softened. In fact, I ended up smoking less and eventually gave it up. The sky didn’t fall. And untimely, people who’d long avoided smokey bars and restaurants could breathe easier going out.
In many cases, business actually got better.
Back then, the gambling industry lobbied aggressively to allow cigarettes in New Jersey casinos and it worked. So the legislation included carveouts for cigarette smoking in Atlantic City’s casinos, an exception that persists to this day.
So for an entire generation, the health and safety of casino workers (and patrons) took a backseat to an increasingly misguided argument that smoking in casinos is somehow good for business. Spoiler alert: Smoking is definitely not good for business.
Back then, those carveouts felt like pragmatism, a comprise to get tough legislation over the line as the lameduck session was winding down. And maybe it was pragmatic. But I was also shameful that, in the process, we basically agreed to toss casino workers under the bus to pass the bill.
And nobody seal-clapped the process louder than I did. And that’s why I owe a huge apology to an entire generation of casino workers whose health we sacrificed in the name of pragmatism.
Back then, I was new to politics and cripplingly naive about sausage making. And so I went along with the compromise (quite uncritically, in fact) mostly because I was eager to make a name for myself on an issue I cared about.
Basically, I wanted to get the win.
I wasn’t lighting my hair on fire to protect casino workers like I would today. Instead, I was fantasizing about the signing ceremony for our flawed legislation. I was too busy wondering if my advocacy might land me on a power list to actually speak truth to power. I’m embarrassed just thinking about it.
Now let’s be honest. The loophole to permit casino smoking was carved out by the powerful and mighty of NJ politics and I had no control over it either way, whatsoever. Then and now, that’s all way above my pay grade.
But I was there the whole time, helping to create a climate that made it okay to jeopardize the health of so many for so long just to pass a bill. Shame on me for that. And shame on us all for waiting this long to right this wrong.
Politics is not possible without compromise. And the idea that people were harmed by compromises I’ve made is painful to acknowledge. I rarely contemplate the collateral damage of the progress I fight for, clearly something I should have been doing this whole time.
I got into politics to help people and I’m sure many people did benefit from NJ’s smoking ban. But if NJ’s half-assed indoor smoking ban has taught us anything it’s that people can be harmed by the compromises we made.
Even the good compromises.
Jay Lassiter is an award-winning writer and podcaster based in Cherry Hill.