Casino Workers Are Fighting for the Air They Breathe

“Why are our lives less important than every other employee in the state of New Jersey?”

Kim Kelly

Closeup of a hand spinning a roulette wheel, with hands moving betting tokens in the background.
A workers spins a roulette wheel at Caesars Atlantic City in 2006, the year casinos were exempted from the state's Smoke-Free Air Act. Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

Rome burned to the ground almost 2,000 years ago, but Caesar’s Palace in Atlantic City, N.J.,is still smoking. The sprawling casino, hotel and entertainment complex is a holdover from the city’s mid-century glory days, where a visitor can still slurp down a shrimp cocktail and gamble to their heart’s content — and in some parts of the casino, light up a cigarette or a stogie and chain smoke the night away.

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When New Jersey passed its Smoke-Free Air Act in 2006, casinos were a notable exemption. Now, Atlantic City’s casino workers, with help from the United Auto Workers, are fighting to close the loophole and clean up the air in their workplaces.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no safe level of secondhand smoke exposure,” and even brief exposure can cause immediate harm to the respiratory and inflammatory systems. Beverly Quinn can vouch for that. She’s spent the past 42 years working at the Tropicana as a dealer and has seen just about everything during her time there. Bev — never Beverly — is in turn brassy and warm, a devoted 66-year-old grandmother who cares deeply for her coworkers and won’t say no to a glass of sauvignon blanc. She also serves as the president of UAW Local 8888, which represents 3,000 casino workers at Bally’s, Caesars and the Tropicana — and she is tired of chronic sinus problems that she attributes to working in a cloud of smoke. 

One row of slot machines says "smoking prohibited"; another five feet away says "smoking permitted."
New Jersey allows casinos to permit smoking on 25% of their floors; often, the smoking and smoke-free areas are interspersed. Photo by Kim Kelly
“Back in December we buried a dealer, 54 years old, he never smoked in a day in his life. He passed away from lung cancer."

Worker-led efforts to ban smoking in Atlantic City’s casinos have long struggled to gain ground against the casinos, whose executives insist that banning smoking will kill jobs, send patrons fleeing to other casinos where smoking is allowed and hurt the already fragile local gaming industry. Ever since the high rollers decamped to other gambling-friendly locales back in the 1970s, Atlantic City’s been down on its luck, a relic trapped in amber and knockoff Art Deco carpeting.

Bev is skeptical of the argument that a smoking ban will sink the city’s gaming industry: Do you think after 42 years that I would want to see a law implemented that’s going to harm my end game?” she huffs. You think I don’t like to make money and pay my bills? This is about the health and safety of workers in the workplace. That’s what it’s about.”

Research by the UAW suggests that phasing out smoking is often good for business. Parx Casino, which is the biggest casino in the state of Pennsylvania, went smoke-free voluntarily a few years ago, and the revenue has been up year over year over year over year,” says Ray Jensen Jr., the assistant director for UAW’s Region 9, which covers Atlantic City.

You could do bong hits up in here and nobody would say anything”

For now, Bev spends her workdays running craps, blackjack and roulette games, and sucking down secondhand smoke from her patrons, who are free to light up at the designated smoking tables. Before I met Bev for dinner at her preferred P.F. Chang’s location (she’s a big fan of their lettuce wraps), I spent hours wandering through Bally’s and Caesars, taking note of their smoking setups. Both casinos are majority nonsmoking but allow it on 25% of the gaming floor. As I saw (and smelled), there were no barriers between the smoking and non-smoking sections, which often sat less than five feet apart.

The workers seem sick of it. A Starbucks barista gave me a thumbs up when I mentioned the smoking ban. A dealer at Bally’s thanked me when I told him I hoped he wouldn’t get any smokers at his table that day.

My eyes burned whenever I got too close to the smokers’ zones and the cloud of cigar smoke wafting over the slot machines. The thought of breathing it in all day was hard to stomach — and the workers seem sick of it.

A Starbucks barista gave me a thumbs up when I mentioned the smoking ban. A dealer at Bally’s thanked me when I told him I hoped he wouldn’t get any smokers at his table that day. It sucks, I hate that I have to go over there,” a Caesars security guard told me when I asked how he felt about working in a smoking section. You can smoke here, but you can’t smoke in restaurants, you can’t smoke on the beach! There’s an expiration date for everything, and it’s time for this one.”

Bev showed me around the Tropicana, pointing out the allegedly smoke-free sections and tutting at the air that still stank of cigarettes. At the gaming tables where Bev works, dealers are randomly assigned to smoking or nonsmoking tables, which stand in adjacent rows. At a nearby bar area we were bowled over by a cloud of potent cigar smog; ten patrons were puffing away a few feet away from the non-smoking” bar … where another man sat casually smoking a cigarette. You could do bong hits up there and nobody would say anything,” one of Bev’s coworkers muttered darkly as he passed us by. 

"In Atlantic City, if you work in the casino industry, whether you smoke or not, you're classified as a smoker when you go to the doctor because you're around so much secondhand smoke."

Meanwhile, Jensen says that workers keep coming home with respiratory illnesses and cancer. The lobbyists and the casino operators and the CEOs are making millions and millions of dollars, but our workers are dying,” he told me. Back in December we buried a dealer, 54 years old, he never smoked in a day in his life. He passed away from lung cancer. In Atlantic City, if you work in the casino industry, whether you smoke or not, you’re classified as a smoker when you go to the doctor because you’re around so much secondhand smoke.” Caesar’s Palace did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

Bev told me that she herself has had sinus surgery four times, and throughout our time together, she periodically pauses to cough. At one point, she took me back into the workers’ break room and showed me a bulletin board that she plans to turn into an ongoing memorial for their lost coworkers. There was already a photo of one fresh-faced woman who had recently died of brain cancer, which has been inconclusively linked to secondhand smoke. She never smoked a day in her life, but she happened to have worked in the Jade Palace room for the last 12 or 15 years,” Bev said. All they do in there is smoke.”

“We went into the State House, and we lit up cigarettes. ... You can smoke where I work, so we came to smoke where these people were.’”

The politicians, I believe their pockets are deeper than their conscience,” Jensen says. There’s been a few politicians that have said, Oh yeah, we support you.’ They’ve come to our rallies, they’ve given speeches, and then when push came to shove, they voted against it.”

A Fighting UAW Gets on Board

When UAW President Shawn Fain and Region 9 Director Dan Vincente were elected that year, C.E.A.S.E. quickly got them up to speed on the issue. At first the union got involved on the legislative front — or, as Jensen puts it, tried doing things the polite way.” But after one of the smoking ban bill’s primary sponsors pulled his support, Vincente and several union members traveled to Trenton to do things the less-polite way.

We went into the State House, and we lit up cigarettes,” Bev told me. She assured me she didn’t light up herself, but she did speak up and video” the action. They were all looking around, saying, I don’t think you can smoke in here’. And I finally said, No, you can’t smoke in here. But you can smoke where I work, so we came to smoke where these people were.’”

When that didn’t work, Region 9 got the UAW executive board’s blessing to escalate the fight. They retained Nancy Erika Smith Esq, a New Jersey attorney who is passionate about the issue of banning smoking. On April 5 of this year, they filed suit against Gov. Murphy and the state health commissioner. 

For almost two decades casino workers have been fighting for the same legal protections that other New Jersey workers have, the right to work in a place free of toxic smoke,” stated Fain when the lawsuit was filed. UAW and C.E.A.S.E. members have fought tirelessly to get lawmakers to do the right thing, but politicians have chosen to protect corporate profits over workers’ health. Today, we put an end to that and ask the court to respect the right of workers to breathe clean air on the job.”

The union argues that the exemptions in the Smoke-Free Air Act violate the New Jersey Constitution by denying casino workers their constitutional rights to equal protection and to pursuing and obtaining safety and happiness.” The suit also alleges that the carve-outs for casino corporations violate a constitutional provision that the legislature may not pass any special laws or grant any exclusive privileges to corporations. 

The first-of-its-kind lawsuit was heard by the New Jersey Superior Court in Mercer County on May 13. We feel very confident that the judge is gonna rule in our favor,” Jensen told me. Nancy said if they don’t, we’re gonna take it to the New Jersey Supreme Court.”

If the suit is successful, its effect will be immediate — smoking will be banned in all of New Jersey’s casinos. They would join 20 other states and more than 100 tribal-owned casinos in completely banning indoor smoking, and setting an example for the 13 other states who still allow smoking on gaming floors. I think it would be the responsible thing for the gaming industry to come together on, and it really should be coast to coast,” Bev said. I mean, we’re in 2024!”

Dissent among unions

The smoking ban does have its opponents, even outside of casino management. UNITE HERE Local 54’s president, Donna DeCaprio, has publicly spoken out against the ban, calling it catastrophic.” The hospitality and casino union warns that the ban could negatively affect the jobs of a third of the 10,000 housekeepers, bartenders, food servers and other service workers it represents; besides the bartenders, the majority of those members work in smoke-free areas. 

After failing to convince the judge to dismiss the UAW’s lawsuit outright, Local 54 has joined with various gaming and business lobbyists to endorsecompromise bill that would create enclosed smoking rooms, to which workers would be voluntarily assigned.

Bev is skeptical. There’s really no volunteering, because people will do what they need to do to keep food on the table and a roof over their family’s head,” she says. “[The casinos] will find somebody to do that, who will say, You know what? It’s not that big of a deal,’ until they get a bad result from an X-ray.”

The very idea of a compromise bill raises her hackles. The compromise has already been [giving] 18 years of our lives to endure when nobody else in the state of New Jersey has had to,” she says. Why are our lives less important than every other employee in the state of New Jersey?”

As I prepared to catch a bus home from my casino trip, the last whiff of Atlantic City that filled my nostrils wasn’t the salty sea air or even the sickly scent of piss. It was cigarette smoke, as one of my fellow passengers paused outside the door to snatch a quick hit of nicotine before boarding. The scent lingered in my hair the whole way home. 

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Kim Kelly is an independent labor journalist and author of Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor. Asbestos killed her grandfather, a former steelworker, and she hopes to help prevent others from losing their own loved ones to occupational disease.

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