Casino floor employee group expands nonsmoking campaign beyond New Jersey

October 11, 2022 9:07 PM
Photo: American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation (courtesy)/Casino smoking protest outside New Jersey statehouse
  • Mark Gruetze, CDC Gaming Reports
October 11, 2022 9:07 PM
  • Mark Gruetze, CDC Gaming Reports

The Atlantic City casino employee organization pushing to ban smoking from gaming floors is expanding to Nevada, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and potentially to other states.

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“This is not just a moment. This is a movement,” said Pete Naccarelli, co-founder of the year-old Casinos Employees Against Smoking Effects (CEASE). The group has its first affiliate, CEASE Rhode Island, and is recruiting members for chapters in Nevada and Pennsylvania.

“We are here to tell the casino employees of Las Vegas and everywhere around the country to contact CEASE and let’s work together to get rid of smoking in casinos,” Naccarelli said Tuesday at a news conference at a Palazzo Hotel suite in Las Vegas, in the same complex where the annual Global Gaming Expo began Monday.

Cynthia Hallett, president and CEO of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, noted that G2E has three days of panel discussions on top issues for the gaming industry but none addressing the “simple solution” of providing clean indoor air for customers and employees by banning smoking on the gaming floor. A discussion on the topic was scheduled for last month’s East Coast Gaming Congress but was canceled when a representative of the Casino Association of New Jersey backed out.

“It’s becoming more and more difficult to talk about why we can’t go smoke free,” Hallett said. “It feels that G2E is ignoring the topic” despite many casinos across the country voluntarily going smokefree after the COVID pandemic and new studies indicating the decision doesn’t harm casino revenue. “People don’t want to talk publicly about the things they can’t defend.”

Asked for comment, the American Gaming Association released this statement: “Each year, G2E includes a carefully calibrated education program that evolves with the industry. G2E 2022 will focus on macroeconomic headwinds, the evolution of responsible gaming, technology disruptors, the relationship between retail and online gaming, and more. We’re thrilled to be in-person for the industry’s premier global event and to be highlighting the gaming technologies and solutions that will define the future.”

Historically, AGA has said smoking is a local issue for states, localities, and individual casinos. Since the pandemic, more than 150 tribal casinos have voluntarily banned smoking, as have some commercial operations, including Parx, the largest casino in Pennsylvania.

CEASE New Jersey member Lamont White, who has been a dealer for more than 37 years, said the New Jersey clean-indoor-air law, passed 16 years ago, protects virtually all workers except those on the casino floor. Because of COVID mask mandates, smoking in casinos was banned for almost a year, but “the poison came back” in July 2021, White said. That prompted the formation of CEASE.

“We’re here in Vegas to carry the message that [a smoking ban] is possible,” he said. “Casino workers from other areas in the country are becoming interested in our progress and ready to join the fight.” He said the group visited four Las Vegas-area casinos Monday to spread their message and found seven or eight employees receptive to their message.

CEASE Rhode Island leader Vanessa Baker, who has worked in New England casinos for 27 years, said her workplace was smoke free for about 20 months because of COVID restrictions. Since smoking resumed this spring, she has become an active asthmatic and has had to resume respiratory medication for issues “clearly caused” by secondhand smoke. If not for seeing that her lungs could heal during the smokefree period, she would not have become involved with CEASE, she said. “I can no longer be the canary in the coal mine.”

A bill that would remove the casino loophole from New Jersey’s clean-indoor-air law has the support of a majority of members in both chambers of the Legislature –including all those from the Atlantic City area – and the governor has said he would sign it. However, the bill has not been brought up for a vote, which Hallett blamed on legislative leadership.

White said most legislators initially did not know what casino employees had to endure because of secondhand smoke but many signed on after hearing their stories. “Anybody with an ounce of humanity is going to back this bill,” he said.

Hallett said that even with strong public and employee support, the smokefree campaign faces “fierce industries that aren’t necessarily interested in change.”

“The tobacco industry doesn’t want to lose any opportunities for someone to smoke. With the casino industry, this type of change apparently is difficult,” even though many casinos are successful with voluntary or mandatory smoking bans.

The dealers said the months of COVID restrictions showed that smokers are willing to take a smoking break and return to the casino floor. “Gamblers will swim through a moat of alligators to get back to the game,” Naccarelli said.