PROVIDENCE — Within an hour of coming to work, she feels a pressure in her chest and begins to cough up mucus.
Within three hours, her eyes are watering and her lungs are burning.
Each work day, Vanessa Baker files an incident report with Bally’s Tiverton Casino about the secondhand cigarette smoke that she faces there.
This week, Baker joined a group of casino workers who rallied at the State House, calling for the General Assembly to ban smoking inside Bally’s Twin River Lincoln Casino and Bally’s Tiverton Casino. Although the state banned smoking in most workplaces and indoor public spaces 18 years ago, Rhode Island continues to allow people to spark up cigarettes in sections of those two venues.
Baker, who lives in Portsmouth and works as a table games supervisor at the Tiverton casino, has been working in smoke-filled casinos for a total of 30 years, and she has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). But she said she has been told she can’t file a worker’s compensation claim.
“They told me I don’t have an injury,” Baker said on Thursday, recalling that human resources officials told her that an injury would be a broken leg or a door hitting her in the head, for example, but not COPD. “I said, ‘I beg to differ with you.’ They said, ‘You signed up for this.’ I said, ‘No. I signed up to give up weekends and holidays. I never thought I was going to give up my health.’ ”
Representative Teresa A. Tanzi, a Narragansett Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would eliminate the exemption that casinos have to the smoke-free workplace requirement contained in the Public Health and Workplace Safety Act. That law, passed in 2004, prohibits smoking in enclosed public spaces in Rhode Island, including restaurants, bars, shopping malls, retail stores, schools, and sports arenas.
“Casino workers are Rhode Islanders, parents, caregivers, taxpayers and human beings, and they deserve the same protections as everyone else in our state,” Tanzi said. “It is fundamentally wrong to say that no one should be exposed secondhand smoke in the workplace, but carve out an exception that leaves one group of workers not only unprotected, but in fact, bathed in smoke every day.”
She noted New Jersey is considering a similar ban on smoking at its casinos, and a poll shows a majority of New Jersey residents favor the move.
Bally’s Rhode Island spokesperson Patti Doyle said that as of Friday, smoking is no longer permitted at live table games in the Lincoln and Tiverton casinos. Customers who want to smoke must leave the table and use a smoking receptacle on the outer perimeters of the table games area, she said. Ashtrays have been removed, she said.
While cigarette smoking will still be allowed in portions of the casinos, Bally’s won’t allow marijuana smoking indoors.
On Wednesday, Governor Daniel J. McKee signed legislation legalizing adult-use recreational marijuana in Rhode Island. But on Friday, Bally’s announced that marijuana smoking won’t be permitted inside its two two casinos. Marijuana use will be allowed outdoors only, Doyle said.
During a House Finance Committee hearing in April, Bally’s Twin River Lincoln vice president and general manager Craig Sculos spoke in opposition to Tanzi’s bill.
Sculos emphasized that smoking is only allowed in designated areas of the casinos. He said the entire second floor of the Lincoln casino is smoke-free, and it has separate entrances and all the same amenities found on the first floor where smoking is allowed.
“The real goal today is a bridge,” he said. The casino is beginning “an incredible expansion” of the casino, he said. That will include the same under-floor ventilation system used at the Tiverton casino, and a first floor area with table games and video lottery terminals will become smoke-free, he said.
Representative William W. O’Brien, a North Providence Democrat, asked if a smoking ban would lead to a decrease in casino revenue, saying he didn’t think it would.
Sculos said studies have shown that casino revenue has fallen after a smoking ban, including a drop of more than 20 percent at a casino in Shreveport, Louisiana.
“There will be an impact, and it will be adverse to revenue,” Sculos said. “And there’s a trickle down. If there’s less revenue, that’s less gaming revenue, there’s less indirect revenue, the revenue that’s generated let’s say for restaurants. It also results in less need for staffing.”
Advocates contend that allowing smoking is no longer necessary for successful business in casinos. “Casinos in Massachusetts and most Connecticut casinos do not allow indoor smoking,” they said in a statement. “In fact, competition from the 100-percent smoke-free Encore Boston Harbor casino, which opened in June 2019, is considered to be biting into Rhode Island’s revenue from table games, video lottery terminals and sports.”
Michael F. Sabitoni, business manager for the Rhode Island Laborers’ District Council that represents about 800 workers in the casinos, wrote to the House Finance Committee, urging it to pass the bill “to ensure our members have a safe work environment.”
“It is well documented that secondhand smoke causes numerous health problems, including but not limited to coronary heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer,” Sabitoni wrote. “In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control, ‘there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke.’ Unfortunately, however, our union members work in close proximity, if not face to face with gaming patrons and secondhand smoke.”
When testifying before the committee, Sabitoni said any financial analysis should factor in the health care costs associated with allowing cigarette smoking in those workplaces. Also, he said, “The industry is moving away from vast areas of smoking indulgement as society decides they want less and less to be in that environment.”
The House Finance Committee recommended the bill be held for further study.
Senator V. Susan Sosnowski, a South Kingstown Democrat, has introduced a companion bill in past years, but not this year.
Baker said she left the casino business for four years after getting laid off from the Foxwoods Casino in 2014, but she came back to work at the Tiverton casino to help support her grandchild in Rhode Island. She said she didn’t realize what a dramatic difference smoking made until the pandemic hit and the casino stopped allowing smoking for about two years.
Being able to work in a smoke-free environment made her feel much better, Baker said. “I got my life back, I got my health back,” she said. “I was getting up at 4 a.m. and going to the gym, working an eight-hour shift, and then taking my grandson hiking.”
But then on March 1, Bally’s began allowing smoking in the casino again, she said. “Now I feel sick every day,” she said. “I’m tired. I get home and I go to bed.”
Baker said workers at the casinos deserve the same protection as everyone else in the state. “The lawmakers need to step up and do the right thing,” she said. “They are killing us.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.