PROVIDENCE — Vanessa Baker, a gaming supervisor at Bally’s Tiverton Casino, sees only two options as she fights to ban smoking at Rhode Island’s casinos.
“I am going to get fired or die because it’s killing me,” she said.
Baker, 57, of Portsmouth, takes 10 medications, uses two inhalers, and now needs a nebulizer. She attributes her respiratory problems to the cigarette smoke she has inhaled during 30 years working in casinos.
“They need to stop poisoning us,” she said. “It’s their money over our health.”
The General Assembly’s 2023 legislative session is about to begin in January. And state Representative Teresa A. Tanzi, a Narragansett Democrat, is planning to reintroduce a bill that would eliminate the exemption that Bally’s Twin River Lincoln Casino and Bally’s Tiverton Casino have to the smoke-free workplace requirement in the Public Health and Workplace Safety Act.
Passed in 2004, that law prohibits smoking in enclosed public spaces in Rhode Island, including restaurants, bars, shopping malls, retail stores, schools, and sports arenas. But it carves out an exception for the state’s casinos.
“I find it appalling that workers at casinos are not given the same protections as any other worker,” Tanzi said. “There is no safe level of secondhand tobacco exposure. I’ll just keep working until it is eliminated.”
She noted some other states have banned cigarettes in casinos following pandemic shutdowns. In November, the New York Times reported that 20 states, including Massachusetts and New York, now prohibit smoking in casinos, Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods casinos are now smoke-free, and an employee-led push is on to ban smoking at casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
But in an interview last week, Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, said he is against Tanzi’s bill. “I oppose that bill because they already resolved that issue at Twin River,” he said.
Earlier this year, Twin River officials told legislators that an expansion in Lincoln would include the same under-floor ventilation system used at the Tiverton casino, and a first floor area with table games and video lottery terminals would become smoke-free. Bally’s spokesperson Patti Doyle said the first floor expansion will be complete in the first quarter of 2023.
“They are going to do something with that new section,” Ruggerio said. “They are doing something with the ventilation not only in that area but in the upper area. I’ve been in that place on numerous occasions. The smoke just sits there, and they are going to fix that.”
Doyle said, “It’s been our practice to accommodate smokers and nonsmokers in our Rhode Island casinos, and we hope to be able to continue to do that in the new year.”
Ruggerio said people who work at the two Rhode Island casinos took those jobs knowing that smoking was allowed in parts of those facilities.
Also, he said, “If you get rid of smoking over there, you will lose half the customers, without a doubt.”
Twin River officials have cited studies saying casino revenue has fallen after a smoking ban, including a drop of more than 20 percent at a casino in Shreveport, Louisiana.
But Baker noted that in June, a Las Vegas-based consulting company, C3 Gaming, issued a report questioning the long-held assumption that banning smoking would drive away customers and result in big financial losses.
“Data from multiple jurisdictions clearly indicates that banning smoking no longer causes a dramatic drop in gaming revenue,” the report says. “In fact, non-smoking properties appear to be performing better than their counterparts that continue to allow smoking.”
Baker said no ventilation system can ensure the safety of workers if smoking is allowed. “He is gambling with our lives,” she said of Ruggerio.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, Rhode Island casinos stopped allowing smoking for nearly two years, and Baker said her health improved dramatically as a result. But now the cigarette smoke is back and so are her breathing problems, she said.
“I can’t believe our government is like that,” Baker said. “We are dying in this building, everybody is getting sick, everybody is paying for medicine, and you don’t care because you don’t work here.”
Baker said she and others have launched a Rhode Island chapter of Casino Employees Against Smoking Effects (CEASE), and the American Heart Association has an online petition.
“Rhode Island needs to stop gambling with the health of our casino workers!” the petition says. “The rest of Rhode Island’s hospitality industry is smoke-free — and has been for more than 17 years. It is unfair to prioritize the casino industry over the health concerns of the hard-working employees who have been ignored for too long.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.