Casino workers deserve a workplace free from deadly secondhand smoke

November 28, 2022 6:53 am

Casino workers are literally sick and tired of being forced to choose between their health and earning a paycheck, writes Atlantic City casino dealer Nicole Vitola. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

For 20 years, I have worked as a casino dealer in Atlantic City. As a young adult, I was drawn to the career because I enjoy meeting and interacting with people. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that the games of chance I was playing with the customers, I was also playing with my health.

Being in direct contact with cigarette smoke had always bothered me, but for years I dealt with it quietly, even while nervously working through two pregnancies. On one of my worst days, I was stuck working in a high roller room with six VIPs smoking cigars and I had to just stand there and deal. It was awful. But I did my job, anxiously wondering what hand was being dealt to my unborn child inside of me.

A 2006 report by the U.S. surgeon general warns of the dangers of secondhand smoke and its links to serious health effects, including lung cancer and heart disease. Since then, the number of Americans who smoke has dramatically declined and just about all public spaces have rules against smoking indoors to protect the health of nonsmokers.

When lawmakers passed the New Jersey Smoke-free Air Act more than 16 years ago, the state declared tobacco smoke a substantial health hazard to the non-smoking majority of residents. After all, secondhand smoke kills an estimated 41,000 Americans annually. However, when they decided it was clearly in the public interest to prohibit smoking in all enclosed indoor public areas and workplaces, they excluded the gaming floors in Atlantic City casinos.

No ventilation system in the world can fix this problem, despite what the casinos claim. Even the engineers who design such ventilation systems say they “are not effective against secondhand smoke.” This is why even the U.S. surgeon general has said that half-baked ideas like indoor smoking lounges don’t protect our health and could never work in casinos.

Casino workers, of course, already know this. Too many of my colleagues have developed lung cancer, asthma, or heart disease, despite never having smoked a single cigarette in their lives.

We were relieved when smoking restrictions were put in place during the early days of the pandemic. For the first time in decades, we were not engulfed in cigarette smoke for eight hours a day. That is why when indoor smoking returned last summer, I, along with a couple thousand of my fellow casino workers, decided to fight back and started organizing to put an end to this dangerous and outdated practice.

Our group, Casino Employees Against Smoking Effects (CEASE), has organized thousands of casino employees from across the country in the fight to end smoking in casinos. Our efforts have resulted in unprecedented support by New Jersey lawmakers for legislation to end indoor smoking in casinos, and we have grown to include chapters in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.

It is absurd that casinos are allowed to subject their workforce to these toxic, life-threatening conditions. Worse, their claims that ending indoor smoking would hurt their bottom line are not only false, but they prove that industry executives are willing to risk our health and lives as long as they’re making money.

When it comes to smoking’s financial impact on casinos, an independent study this year found that “banning smoking no longer causes a dramatic drop in gaming revenue. In fact, non-smoking properties appear to be performing better than their counterparts that continue to allow smoking.”

More and more casinos are opting to voluntarily go smoke-free indoors, and 20 states have laws in place that restrict indoor smoking. Parx Casino in Philadelphia, a competitor of Atlantic City casinos, has consistently been the top revenue-generating casino in Pennsylvania and has been voluntarily operating smoke-free.

Ending indoor smoking should be a top priority in Atlantic City. Workers like me are demanding more from their employers, and the casinos are no exception. We are literally sick and tired of being forced to choose between our health and earning a paycheck. Luckily, we have gained overwhelming support and are close to making this life-saving change. Enough is enough. We will keep fighting until we have a safe workplace, free from deadly secondhand smoke.

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Nicole Vitola
Nicole Vitola

Nicole Vitola is a longtime casino dealer in Atlantic City and co-leader of Casino Employees Against Smoking Effects, a group of thousands of Atlantic City casino dealers and other frontline gaming workers fighting to end indoor smoking at their workplaces.