Dealers with cancer beg for Atlantic City casino smoking ban

Several Atlantic City casino dealers with cancer, and others who fear they may develop it, are asking New Jersey lawmakers to ban smoking in the state's casinos.

A person has a cigarette in their mouth while playing a slot machine.

A person plays a slot machine while smoking in the Hard Rock casino in Atlantic City N.J. on Aug. 8, 2022. On Thursday, March 9, 2023, New Jersey legislators held a second hearing on a bill that would prohibit smoking at Atlantic City's casinos, but again did not vote on it. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

Tammy Brady began her career as an Atlantic City casino dealer at the age of 18. Now 55, she has stage 2 breast cancer.

“While I’m not sure we will ever know the exact cause of my illness, I can’t help but wonder if it would have happened if the casinos hadn’t forced me to work in second-hand smoke,” said Brady, who works at the Borgata casino.

Holly Diebler, a craps dealer at Tropicana, is undergoing chemotherapy for throat cancer.

“I don’t even know how long I’m going to live,” she said. “I love my job; I don’t want to leave it. But all my oncologists have told me this is a life-and-death choice.”

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They were among numerous casino employees who testified Thursday before two state Assembly committees in favor of a bill that would prohibit smoking in Atlantic City’s nine casinos.

No vote was taken on the bill, as in an identical hearing on Feb. 13. Gov. Phil Murphy has promised to sign the bill if it passes the Legislature, but thus far, leaders of the Democrat-controlled Assembly and Senate have not committed to allowing the bill to move forward and be voted upon.

The bill would close a loophole in the state’s 2006 indoor smoking law. That measure was written specifically to exempt casinos from bans on smoking indoors. Currently, smoking is permitted on 25% of a casino floor in Atlantic City.

“I don’t want to take away your right to kill yourself by smoking,” said Assemblyman Don Guardian, a former mayor of Atlantic City. “I do want to take away your right to kill someone else by smoking in a casino.”

The casino industry opposes a smoking ban, saying it would lose customers and revenue if smoking were banned while still being allowed in casinos in nearby states.

But Andrew Klebenow of Las Vegas-based C3 Gaming, said many casinos that have ended smoking are thriving financially, including casinos near Washington, D.C., and Boston, and in Maryland.

Business groups opposed a ban, and Bob McDevitt, president of Local 54 of the Unite Here casino workers union, predicted that prohibiting smoking would cost the industry 10% of its revenue and cause the closure of at least one casino.

“Down south, there are no other jobs,” he said. “It’s like Hooterville. No one is for cancer. The issue is do we end up closing a casino or not?”

The Casino Association of New Jersey said the true impact of a smoking ban could be closer to 20 to 25% of casino revenue being lost.

“The Atlantic City casino industry is still very much in a rebuilding and recovery phase from where it was at the start of the pandemic,” its statement read. “Visitation to Atlantic City is near a 20-year low, while gas and toll prices are increasing. Adding a smoking ban could cause a devastating effect to the community and state in this difficult economy.”

Iris Sanchez, a housekeeper at Caesars, said she fears being laid off if smoking is banned and business levels decrease.

“I’m not opposed to smoking; I’m opposed to losing jobs,” she said.

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But many more casino workers felt differently.

Every time Robin Vitulle clocks in at her job as a dealer at Hard Rock, she has the same thought: “Is this the day I inhale the cloud of smoke that gives me cancer? Or is it too late already?”

Dealers say they are forbidden by their employers from waving the smoke away.

“They say it would embarrass the customer,” said Janice Green, 62, a craps dealer at the Tropicana. “I think, ‘You mean the customer that’s killing me?’”

Whether to ban smoking is one of the most controversial issues not only in Atlantic City, but in casinos in other states where workers have expressed concern about secondhand smoke. They are waging similar campaigns in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The issue is among the most divisive in Atlantic City, where even though casino revenue matched its all time high of $5.2 billion last year, only half that amount was won from in-person gamblers. The other half was won online and must be shared with third parties including tech platforms and sports books.

Just three of the nine casinos — Borgata, Ocean and Resorts — surpassed their pre-pandemic revenue levels in terms of money won from in-person gamblers last year.

Support for a smoking ban is widespread among New Jersey lawmakers, with a bipartisan majority in both chambers.

The bill needs to be voted upon in committees of the Senate and Assembly, then voted on by the full membership of those legislative bodies before going to the governor. Those hearings and votes have not yet been scheduled.

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