Specially equipped tables clear air for dealers at one Atlantic City casino
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – For casino worker Joan Zarych, there’s no escaping the smoke. It surrounds her at work, it follows her home on her clothing, it aggravates the asthma she says she got from working around cigarette-smoking gamblers for 20 years.
Whenever she gets a break, she hits the Boardwalk for a breath of fresh air.
But for much of her eight-hour shift as a table games supervisor, she’s stuck overseeing craps tables, roulette wheels and blackjack tables where the smoke from cigars and cigarettes hovers like an unwanted guest.
Zarych, 45, would like to quit her $50,000-a-year job, but she has two young daughters to support. She can’t.
“When I went to school to be a casino dealer, I didn’t know it would damage my health. No one said I’d have to put up with people blowing smoke in my face. That wasn’t part of the job description at all,” Zarych said.
Zarych and other casino employees blame respiratory problems on their work environment. A recent study underscored just how hazardous that environment can be.
According to the study, published last month in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, the air in bars and casinos can have up to 50 times more cancer-causing particles than the air on rush-hour highways.
The study, by biophysicist James Repace, found that casino and bar workers are exposed to particulate pollution at far greater levels than the government allows outdoors.
It wasn’t the first scientific study that focused on the problem.
A 1996 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that casino workers are at greater risk for lung and heart disease because of secondhand smoke.
In that study, researchers sampled the urine and blood of 29 nonsmoking dealers and supervisors at Bally’s Atlantic City casino, concluding that workers exposed to smoke had substantially higher levels of serum cotinine – a chemical formed by the body’s metabolism of nicotine – than those in a comparison group who didn’t work there.
While smoking bans protect many U.S. workers, those who deal cards and serve drinks in casinos get no relief. Many gamblers like to smoke and casinos don’t want to alienate them by banning smoking.
Some Atlantic City casinos maintain no-smoking slot areas and table games, but most have no restrictions on lighting up.
“We’ve been trying to get help in the casinos for years,” said Zarych, one of four Atlantic City casino employees to unsuccessfully sue tobacco companies in 1998. “It gets squashed. I’ve tried to hire lawyers, but the tobacco industry and the casino industry, they’re too strong.”
Casinos, for their part, would rather not have to choose between respecting smokers or respecting non-smokers.
“From the industry’s perspective, we are not pro- or anti-smoking,” said Naomi Greer, a spokeswoman for the American Gaming Association, the casino industry’s national lobbying organization.
“It would be easier for us if nobody chose to smoke, but the reality is that many of our customers do. We are confident our members are taking the steps necessary to help ensure the health and comfort of all our customers as well as our employees,” Greer said.
Last year, a measure that would have banned smoking in public places in New Jersey was amended to exempt bars and casinos before being gutted. A bill has been introduced again this year, but it already contains an exemption for casinos.
“The prevailing wisdom is that smokers are more prevalent amongst casino patrons than amongst the population at large,” said Michael Pollock, publisher of the Gaming Industry Observer, an Atlantic City casino industry newsletter. “But you’ll see less and less opposition as competitors to casinos – other gaming venues or other entertainment venues – go nonsmoking. Casinos don’t want to be put at a competitive disadvantage.”
Anti-smoking advocates say the deck is stacked in casinos’ favor, thanks to the industry’s political clout and the tax revenues it produces.
“It’s the money,” said Chris Bostic, general counsel for Action on Smoking and Health, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C. “States that allow gambling have become very dependent on the revenue that comes from them. They’re worried they’ll lose money, that the gamblers will go to states that still allow it.”
New Jersey’s reluctance to follow suit with New York, Delaware and other states that have banned smoking in public places may be a financial consideration.
After all, when gambling revenue drops, so do state revenues.
“It’s the loss of revenues to the whole state from the industry,” said state Sen. John Adler, D-Camden, who sponsored anti-smoking legislation last year that would have exempted casinos and has a similar bill pending this year. “Casinos are a big part of our state economy.”
In New Jersey, casinos employ about 48,000 people and spend billions buying goods and services. Still, some wonder how casinos get dealt out when it comes to smoking bans.
“It’s hard to explain why casinos continue to be carved out,” said Deborah Dowdell, president of the New Jersey Restaurant Association. “I don’t know how these exemptions keep coming to pass. If we’re talking about protecting employees, I don’t know how exemptions keep coming in.”
Cathy Burke has a theory about that.
Burke, who runs the Irish Pub tavern here, calls the smoking ban’s casino exemption part of a continuing pattern of preferential treatment for New Jersey’s gambling industry.
She fears a smoking ban that exempts casinos but not restaurants.
“This smoking ban – this exemption – is just one more nail in the coffin for a business like ours,” Burke said. “Why would someone come here and not be able to smoke when they could walk across the parking lot to a casino and smoke there?”
Casino workers, meanwhile, feel like second-class citizens because occupational safety laws don’t address what they see as the biggest hazard in their workplace.
Joseph Yaniak, 47, who works in table games at a Boardwalk casino, suffers from asthma and emphysema and blames them on 20 years of working around gamblers, some of whom purposely blow smoke into dealers’ faces when they’re losing.
He uses a steroid inhaler when he works, and he goes outside at every opportunity. But his job is to watch craps games and blackjack tables, and he has to be close by to do it.
“You can’t walk away. You’re tied to the table for an hour and it doesn’t matter whether they light up five cigars or six cigarettes. You have to stand there and breathe it. The casino operators say ‘Hey, you don’t like it, find another job,”‘ Yaniak said.
Bob Zlotnick, a founding member of Atlantic County Communities Against Tobacco, an advocacy group, said he hears that from casino employees all the time.
“I tell them the same thing the casinos do: It’s a choice to work there. If you want to make the kind of wages they’re paying, you work here and you work under these conditions. He who has the gold makes the rules.”