Borgata dealers, health groups plead for smoking ban on casino floors

Borgata dealers, health groups plead for smoking ban on casino floors

  • Mark Gruetze, CDC Gaming Reports
October 6, 2021 4:28 AM
  • Mark Gruetze, CDC Gaming Reports

Pete Naccarelli worries that he won’t be around to sit with his wife and watch a sunset in their old age.

Nicole Vitola tells of a coworker who must use an oxygen tank to walk between a table game pit and the dealers’ break room.

Lamont White hopes to find a lawmaker who understands the plight of a pregnant casino dealer “who is forced to feed her child secondhand smoke.”

The three, all longtime dealers for Borgata Casino in Atlantic City fighting to ban smoking on casino floors in New Jersey and elsewhere, spoke Tuesday at a news conference down a hallway from the bustle of the Global Gaming Expo, a premier event for the casino industry.

The setting was hardly happenstance, according to Cynthia Hallett, president and CEO of the Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation, which helped organize the event.

“Absent from the (G2E) programming is a focus on casino worker health and safety,” she said. “In particular, we don’t expect to hear much at all about the unreasonable choice too many gaming workers are forced to make every day. That’s a choice between their health and a paycheck.”

Gaming floors in New Jersey, like those in Nevada and several other states, are exempt from state bans on smoking for almost all other places open to the public. The three dealers have started a group called CEASE – Casino Employees Against Smoking’s (harmful) Effects – to gather support for smoke-free gaming floors.

“Patrons are still allowed to sit down and smoke at the tables, where the dealer is unable to walk away, turn around, or even wave the smoke away without facing disciplinary action from management,” Vitola said. “Many casinos have gone smoke free since the start of the pandemic, but too many continue to put profits over health, even as we’ve seen the casinos thrive by operating smoke free.”

New Jersey gaming floors were smoke free for more than during an indoor mask mandate the state-imposed to prevent the spread of COVID; officials ruled that masks could not be lowered for smoking. The smoking ban was lifted July 4, when the state’s public health emergency ended.

Naccarelli said Borgata attracted many new customers while the ban was in effect.

“It’s an old-school mentality that the casino has that you need smokers that gamble, but it’s just not the case anymore,” he said. “We’re getting still getting the smokers, but we’re also gathering a new clientele.”

During the ban, smokers went outside to light up, and “and they had no problem doing it because they have to do it everywhere,” he said.

Hallett called secondhand smoke not just a nuisance but a health hazard, causing not only chronic long-term illnesses such as cancer but also bronchitis and exacerbated asthma attacks.

“There’s a lot of respiratory issues, which of course makes this issue all the more relevant during a respiratory-driven pandemic,” she added.

Christine Thompson, project manager for Smoke Free Truckee Meadows in Nevada, dismissed claims that casinos cannot survive without smoking, citing the success of several operators in smoke-free locales.

“When it comes to providing clean air for all employees to breathe, Nevada can choose to be a leader and not the last state clinging to an outdated public health policy,” said Thompson, also prevention programs manager for the Nevada Cancer Coalition and board member of the Nevada Tobacco Prevention Coalition. The Truckee Meadows group supports smoke-free ordinances in Reno, Sparks, and Washoe counties, home to nearly 40,000 hospitality employees and host to millions of tourists.

Hallett said laws requiring smoke-free workplaces apply to almost two-thirds of workers in America – including those in casino offices.

“It’s the gaming floor,” she said. “It’s janitorial and custodial. It’s the dealers. It’s the hostesses who are delivering drinks.” She said nearly 84 percent of casino workers – primarily black, brown, and female – are left unprotected from secondhand smoke.

ANRF counts nearly 1,100 smoke-free gaming sites nationwide and says many decided to ban smoking in the wake of the COVID pandemic. Twenty states and several local governments require smoke-free gaming facilities. Parx and Mount Airy casinos in Pennsylvania remain smoke-free after the state lifted its temporary ban with the expiration of an indoor mask mandate. Park MGM on the Las Vegas Strip is smoke-free. The financial success of smoke-free casinos nationwide shows the claims of long-term financial loss don’t hold water, she said.

“Our friends here this morning remind us that human lives should be part of that economic equation,” Hallett said, referring to the Borgata dealers. “Their lives are more important than a few points on a balance sheet.”

Mark Gruetze is a veteran journalist from suburban Pittsburgh who covers casino gaming issues and personalities.