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Are casino workers entitled to a smoke-free workplace? The UAW thinks so.

Atlantic City casino workers suing state to overturn smoking ban exemption
Atlantic City casino workers suing state to overturn smoking ban exemption 00:27

Breathing second-hand smoke is still part of the job for many U.S. workers, especially those employed at casinos.

"You know you're in a place unlike any other place in 2024, immediately. Nobody has to be smoking near you, you get the effect as soon as you walk into the casino," Lamont White, 61, a dealer in Atlantic City for nearly 39 years, told CBS MoneyWatch. "My eyes are always red, I have upper respiratory infections all the time — nothing serious yet, but we never know," said White, who works at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, one of nine casinos in Atlantic City. All allow smoking.

"We stand at the tables where they can smoke directly in our faces," relayed Nicole Vitola, 49, also a dealer at the Borgata, and, like White, a co-founder of Casino Employees Against Smoking Effects, or CEASE, a grassroots group formed in 2021 in New Jersey. 

A dealer in Atlantic City for 27 years, Vitola worked in the smoked-filled casino rooms through two pregnancies. "At no time do they show courtesy for the pregnant dealers," she said. 

After unsuccessfully agitating for more than three years to get lawmakers to ban smoking in Atlantic City casinos, CEASE and the United Auto Workers filed a lawsuit on Friday in state Superior Court challenging a gap in New Jersey's indoor clean air law. New Jersey in 2006 passed legislation banning smoking in enclosed indoor spaces and workplaces, but exempted casino workers from its protections, with smoking allowed on 25% of the casino floor. 

"This legislation was supposed to protect everyone from the dangers of secondhand smoke. But somehow, our casino workers have been asked to roll the dice, all in the name of corporate greed," UAW President Shawn Fain said. "Every worker deserves safety on the job, and every person deserves equal protection under the law. By leaving out casino workers, the state of New Jersey isn't holding up its end of the bargain." 

UAW's region 9 represents workers in New Jersey, including more than 3,000 in the Bally's, Caesars and Tropicana casinos in Atlantic City, "many of whom have suffered, and continue to suffer severe health problems as a result of having to work in secondhand smoke," according to the complaint. Casino workers "have cancer and other diseases related to smoking, although they don't smoke," the document stated. 

The lawsuit names Gov. Phil Murphy and the state's acting health commissioner. Murphy, a Democrat, has signaled that he would sign a smoking ban into law if state lawmakers pass one. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

The Casino Association of New Jersey, a trade group that represents all nine Atlantic City casinos, declined to comment on the lawsuit. But the group has opposed a smoking ban, arguing such a prohibition would place the city's casinos at a disadvantage in competing with establishments in neighboring states that allow smoking.

"The state of New Jersey has failed casino workers in Atlantic City for 18 years. We let a false argument about economics subjugate our duty to protect the people we serve and in doing so, we allowed corporations to poison their employees for nearly two decades," Joseph Vitale, a New Jersey state senator, said in a statement supporting the lawsuit. 

By 2022, 26 states had commercial casinos employing more than 745,000 people, 22,796 of them in New Jersey, according to the latest annual report from the New Jersey Casino Control Commission. 

Casino workers are also leading campaigns to close smoking loopholes in other states, including Kansas, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Virginia.

Dealers, bartenders and technicians who service the slot machines at U.S. casinos are subjected to on-the-job fumes from the cigarettes of customers still legally allowed to light up inside gambling establishments in 20 states, according to CEASE.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no safe level of secondhand smoke. Further, allowing smoking in casinos puts 96,000 casino workers in Las Vegas at risk, the agency found in a report issued in last year.

Separate data published in June 2022 by Las Vegas-based C3 Gaming found casinos without indoor smoking outperforming their smoking counterparts.

"While nearly ever business in Nevada protects workers and guests from the known dangers of secondhand smoke indoors, casinos are the exception," Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR) said in calling for an end to indoor smoking in the state.

MGM in 2020 announced that Park MGM, which includes NoMad Las Vegas, would become the first fully smoke-free casino resort on the Las Vegas Strip. Other casinos have non-smoking sections. 

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