Will a grassroots anti-smoking effort finally gain real traction in the casino industry?

Will a grassroots anti-smoking effort finally gain real traction in the casino industry?

  • John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports
October 21, 2021 12:13 AM
  • John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports

It’s understandable that it would be lost amid the relentless misery of the pandemic, but a strange and refreshing thing happened inside Atlantic City casinos once they made the transformation into a safer environment for customers.

In addition to the new cleaning protocols and Plexiglas, the masks and social distancing, smoking was temporarily banned on the traditionally heavily fogged casino floor. The change was immediately noticeable by players and dealers alike. And smokers managed to adjust to lighting up outside.

When that seemingly simple change was rescinded in July, the reversal was also immediately apparent. And casino dealers who hadn’t considered themselves activists for social change inside the gaming industry felt compelled to step up, speak out, and call for action.

Fast forward to the recent Global Gaming Expo 2021 at the Venetian Expo Center, where four veteran dealers-turned-activists gathered not far from the sprawling convention’s exit. They talked about health concerns and what they considered the industry’s complicity in failing to protect the safety of its employees. They also spoke about what they consider an obvious missed opportunity provided by the pandemic to clear the air once and for all.

After 36 years behind the tables, Lamont White has watched the world’s acceptance of public smoking, especially in indoor spaces, change dramatically – except where he works and breathes.

“In the 70s, I went to see my grandmother in the nursing home and they had ashtrays in the lobby – in a nursing home,” White recalled. “You could smoke in a hospital. You could smoke everywhere. Now you can’t smoke anywhere but in a casino. I went to a show one time in a casino and one of my party said, ‘Where’s the smoking section?’ Oh, excuse me you can’t smoke – only on the casino floor.”

That’s the irony. New Jersey has even banned smoking at public beaches and parks.

When the state’s casino lockdown was lifted in June 2020, a smoking ban was put in place for obvious health reasons. After the ban ended on July 1, 2021, the grassroots rallying effort began for White and his allies.

“I consider it really a slap in the face, because business was thriving,” White said. “And I don’t know why they had to bring it back, but they brought it back anyway. They didn’t take us into consideration, so we have to stand up for ourselves.”

Their efforts are fully embraced by the national organization Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, but these dealers came by their activism organically. And their numbers are growing.

After 25 years of inhaling someone else’s smoke, casino dealer Pete Naccarelli Jr. saw the “tipping point” that occurred after smoking returned to Atlantic City.

“Dealers haven’t liked smoke for a long time,” he said. “Casino employees haven’t liked smoke for a long time. But in the pandemic when they took smoking away, and we had clean air to breathe, the players enjoyed it and the smokers walked outside. There was no issue. When they brought it back, everybody got so fired up.”

The group had trouble gathering 50 casino floor allies prior to the end of the ban. But afterward? “We put it on Facebook and we got 2,000 dealers in a month and a half,” Naccarelli said.

Nicole Vitola, a 23-year veteran on the casino floor, felt compelled to “step up, because I care about my health. I care about my coworkers’ health. I care about all the people who can’t speak up on their own, whether their English is bad. I work with a lot of minority workers and they come to me and say, ‘Nicole, help me. Help do this.’ And I’m not scared. I’m not scared, because I was born in America and I know my rights. And I’m not going to be intimidated by big corporations.”

After 18 years in the pit, asthma-sufferer Mike Danay has felt his condition worsen, and he’s sure of the cause.

“When I took the job, I didn’t like the smoke, but it was not that big of a deal,” he said. “Ten years in, it started really getting worse. A lot of people with asthma, when they get into adulthood, their asthma lessens. Mine worsened. And I know exactly why. It’s smoking in the casinos.”

In a sign of changing times, the Navajo Nation Council on Tuesday during its fall session voted overwhelmingly to ban commercial tobacco product use in public. Ceremonial tobacco use was exempted, but the ban includes the nation’s four casinos. Smoking is allowed outside the casinos in designated areas, according to the Farmington Daily Times.

In its defense, much of the casino industry has substantially improved air-filtration systems over time. But no one wants to alienate high-rolling players, some of whom smoke. The powerful Casino Association of New Jersey has successfully opposed a permanent smoking ban in the gambling establishments, in no small part because its officials contend smoking players will find other venues to place their bets. In short, smoking is bad, but smoking bans are bad for business.

White responds with a line about gamblers being willing to swim through a moat of crocodiles to get to the tables. Others in the group remind a skeptic that a statewide ban would keep the playing field level.

In the end, Vitola cuts to the essence of the group’s argument.

“Somebody with some sense of humanity could say, ‘They’re right,’” she said. “They know they’re doing wrong. They know that it’s harmful. They don’t value our lives. We need them to value our lives. The fact that New Jersey values everyone else’s life but ours upsets us even more. And that’s why we’re speaking out.”

I suspect you haven’t heard the last of them.