Casino employee group CEASE hopeful of New Jersey smoking ban winning legislative approval this year

October 4, 2023 9:25 PM
Photo: American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation (courtesy)/Casino smoking protest outside New Jersey statehouse
  • Mark Gruetze, CDC Gaming Reports
October 4, 2023 9:25 PM
  • Mark Gruetze, CDC Gaming Reports

Just two years after forming, a dealers group urging a smoking ban for Atlantic City casinos predicts state lawmakers could approve it this year.

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“We’re talking with the politicians and we’re very confident that things are going to happen in the lame-duck period” after November’s legislative elections, Pete Naccarelli, a co-founder of Casino Employees Against Smoking’s Effects (CEASE), told CDC Gaming Reports. Eighty-three of the 120 members of the New Jersey General Assembly and Senate are co-sponsors of bills that would eliminate a provision in the state’s clean-indoor-air law that allows smoking in casinos. Despite that support, the bills have not been brought to the floor for a vote.

“We’re very optimistic that it’s going to get done,” said CEASE co-founder Lamont White.

The legislative support for smoke-free New Jersey casinos is just one sign of the shift in attitudes about smoking and casinos, the two said. In addition, CEASE now has chapters in eight states, including Nevada, a bill to ban smoking in Pennsylvania casinos was the subject of a formal committee hearing this summer, and the Global Gaming Expo’s first panel discussion on smoking and casinos is scheduled for Oct. 11 at the Venetian Expo. Thirty to 50 CEASE members, from all chapters of the group, and United Auto Workers representatives will gather in Las Vegas in advance of the panel discussion.

“This (G2E panel) is a microcosm of things changing in the country,” Naccarelli said. “(Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights) has been trying to get this discussion going for years and were never allowed. Now they’re able to go to Vegas and have a discussion at G2E, which is huge.” He said scheduling the discussion indicates operators’ acceptance that change is coming and they should determine how best to handle it.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say any exposure to secondhand smoke is a health risk, with even brief exposures capable of causing serious problems. Elimination of smoking is the only way to guard against exposure, the agency says. Although states’ clean-indoor laws prohibit smoking in almost all workplaces and sites open to the public, several with a significant number of gaming employees – including Nevada, New Jersey, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania – exempt casino floors.

Jennifer Rubolino said she found the smoke “overwhelming” after leaving her department-store job and starting as a table-game dealer at Rivers Pittsburgh in 2019. She soon had second thoughts about working in a smoking environment. “I wasn’t thinking so much about it prior to that. I just thought dealing cards would be a fun job. And then (the smoke) became a problem. You shouldn’t have to take the good with the bad. That shouldn’t be like a package deal, where you have to deal with smoke just because you want to deal cards.”

Rubolino, who began using an inhaler to help her breathing before she joined Rivers, now works primarily in the casino’s nonsmoking pit after providing a statement from her physician. “Even with that, it’s not foolproof. I’m still concerned, because (the smoke’s) still in the air,” she said.

Pennsylvania allows smoking on up to half the casino floor and nothing prevents smokers or the smoke from entering nonsmoking areas.

Rubolino, co-leader of the fledgling Pennsylvania CEASE chapter, noted that all Pennsylvania casinos were smoke-free for several months while COVID mask mandates were in effect. “As soon as the mask mandates were lifted, they brought the ashtrays back,” she said.

CEASE originated in New Jersey and announced that it was branching out to other states last year. The group now has chapters in Nevada, Rhode Island, Virginia. Louisiana, Kansas, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. Naccarelli said casino workers in Florida are interested in starting a chapter.

Legislation making New Jersey casinos smoke-free would encourage casino workers throughout the country, he said. “This is a big domino to fall. When they see Atlantic City, the second largest market gaming market in the country, go nonsmoking, it’ll give them the hope they need to say ‘we can do this, too.’”

White emphasized that CEASE members aren’t unhappy with the casinos that employ them and so many others, but with state laws that force workers and customers to contend with smoke. “We’re protesting to get a law changed,” he said. He went on to explain that supporters of retaining the casino smoking exemption use unsubstantiated or “antiquated” claims about a ban causing drastic drops in revenue, resulting in job losses or even casino closures. CEASE points to the more than 150 tribal and commercial casinos that have voluntarily gone smoke-free since COVID and have not experienced a revenue loss. One of those is Parx in Philadelphia, which leads Pennsylvania in gaming revenue.

Naccarelli said that when CEASE began two years ago, few elected officials would openly support a smoking ban. Some didn’t know smoking was allowed in casinos, while others didn’t realize that dealers had no defense against a player smoking less than a foot away.

“When we started, people had little hope. Nobody really wanted to back this (proposal), because no politician wants to back a losing bill,” he said. “Once we started meeting with them, everybody wants to back the bill. They want to back a winning bill. We think this is gonna go.”