PROVIDENCE — As they tell it, a typical workday at one of Rhode Island’s two smoke-filled casinos ends with the following:
Headaches. Itchy eyes. Chronic coughing. Persistent sinus and respiratory infections. Stinky clothing and a persistent, data-driven fear of dying from lung cancer.
About two dozen employees at Bally’s Twin River in Lincoln and Bally’s Tiverton Casino gathered at the State House again on Thursday to plead with lawmakers to repeal the “loophole” that allows smoking at the two casinos, despite Rhode Island having a smoke-free workplace law.
In 2022, outspoken smoke-free casino advocate Vanessa Baker disclosed she was “newly diagnosed with COPD and…back on medication for respiratory issues clearly caused by exposure to secondhand smoke.”
Currently on medical leave from her job as a table games dealer at Bally’s Tiverton casino, the 50-something Baker said Thursday: she asked to be reassigned to the non-smoking area at Bally’s Lincoln casino so she could return to work and was told: there’s a line ahead of her.
“Are casino workers less valuable than every other employee in the state?” asked Rep. Teresa Tanzi, the lead sponsor again this year of a House bill to close the loophole. “It’s absolutely not right.”
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Workers complain of toxic smoke, sinus infections at Bally’s casinos
The timing was linked to a Senate Finance Committee hearing on matching legislation to remove the exemption, over the objections of casino executives, who have characterized permission to smoke indoors as an attraction that sets the Rhode Island’s casinos apart from the New England competitors.
“I’m a casino dealer who has had numerous sinus and respiratory infections since the beginning of March of 2022, when indoor smoking was reintroduced at Bally’s Twin River Casino,” Christy St. Clair wrote lawmakers ahead of an earlier hearing this year.
“No worker in the state of Rhode Island should be forced to breathe cancer-causing chemicals from cigars and cigarettes every single day,” she wrote.
“I am an 85 year old disabled veteran working as [a] security officer at the Bally’s Tiverton Hotel/Casino and have done so since the opening! I have COPD, the smoking here is making my condition worse, even though I wear a mask on duty,” wrote Arthur Caesar in an email titled: “Casino Smoking Killing Me.”
“Other than the smoke, I love the job and most of the good folks here!” he wrote.
“The argument of losing money is frankly bull—-,” wrote Andy Toye. “Every other casino we compete with is smoke free. I have worked up at Encore and they are not hurting at all by being smoke free. They are actually thriving.”
“Just a personal note here,” he added. “I also work as a real estate agent. I cannot wear the suits I wear to work at the casino as a realtor because they smell like cigarettes, cigars and marijuana after a single night of work. That’s just my suit. Imagine the continual damage to my lungs.” (“Twin River has a policy that marijuana cannot be smoked inside, but it happens all the time,” he said.)
Bally’s says they work to accommodate smoking, non-smoking guests and employee needs
Asked Bally’s stance ahead of Thursday night’s hearing, spokeswoman Patti Doyle told The Journal: “Bally’s hopes to continue to accommodate both smoking and non-smoking guests.”
Smoking is only permitted in designated areas, she said, and employees can request non-smoking areas as shift availability allows. Smoking is also no longer allowed at the gaming tables.
Elaborating, she said: “In Lincoln, smoking is not allowed on the second floor. Smoking is also not allowed in the restaurants, Event Center, Sportsbook, spa, food hall and food court … Tiverton has a designated non-smoking area and in the smoking area, offers a state-of-the-art, under floor HVAC system.”
What states allow smoking in casinos?
When asked what other states allow smoking in casinos, she provided a list that came with several caveats, such as: non-smoking areas required; governed at the municipal level or “smoking is allowed in the tribal casinos in that state but not the commercial casinos.”
According to a 2022 American Gaming Association analysis, she said, the following states/casinos permit smoking: Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, West Virginia.
Employee says non-smoking floor has fewer tables, dealers than smoking floors
In his own letter to lawmakers last month, casino dealer Ian Garneau alleged the operators’ descriptions of the separation between smokers and non-smokers doesn’t tell the whole story.
In Lincoln, where he said he works, “the non-smoking floor only has about 3-4 table games open at a time daily, depending on staffing…which means the amount of dealers that actually work in the non smoking area is no more than 5-6 at a time per shift…[and] those are reserved for people [who] have [a] doctor’s note.”
The breakdown of available non-smoking tables games and slots at the two casinos, according to Doyle: In TIverton, 0 tables games out of a total of 32 and 48 video-slots out of a total of 1,000; in Lincoln, six out of a total of 114 table games and approximately 500 out of a total of 3,802 video-slots.
With the legislation now in the Senate’s court, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio told The Journal: “My understanding is that Bally’s worked with its union members earlier this year to implement a number of changes related to smoking in their Rhode Island casinos, including making improvements to ventilation and limiting smoking directly near employees, such as at table games.
“From the Senate’s perspective, the legislation will undergo the usual committee review process, beginning this evening in the Senate Finance Committee, through which the benefits and ramifications of such a prohibition can be evaluated.”
Asked the chances in the House, Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi said: “It’s under consideration. There’s very compelling testimony both for and against it….[But] it’s possible that we would consider bringing that out for a floor vote this year. It’s possible.”
Among those listed as participants in Thursday’s press conference: Cynthia Hallett, president and CEO of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights; Matthew Dunham, president of Dealers Union Local 711; Daniel Fitzgerald, representing the American Lung Association; Megan Tucker, representing the American Heart Association; and Ryan Strik, representing the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.