Read a first-person story about what it’s like to work in smoke-filled casinos. Secondhand smoke is not just a nuisance, but a serious health hazard.
We’re grateful for Mike Danay’s bravery in sharing his story with us. (4 minute read)
I started working as a casino dealer in the summer of 2003, when the shiny new casino opened in Atlantic City. I knew when I started that smoking was allowed in NJ casinos and this was something we were required to deal with. I was young (mid20’s) and not really bothered by secondhand smoke. I was diagnosed with asthma as a child and remained asthmatic into adulthood. I use an Advair inhaler daily and have a rescue inhaler that goes everywhere with me. As the years went by, I grew to hate the stink of secondhand smoke but was otherwise unphased by it.
About 10 years into my career my asthma started to worsen. This would be more noticeable on days I was scheduled in a smoking section. I missed a few months of work recovering from foot surgery. Those months my asthma symptoms were extremely mild and practically nonexistent. I remember my first day back after my layoff. The stench of cigarette smoke brought all the feelings back. My throat was sore, my voice was weakened, and breathing was labored. Over the next several years, I would do anything I could to switch my schedule so that I would not be forced to deal in a smoking section. This was becoming difficult as many dealers were also trying to avoid smoking sections.
In 2019, after 16 years of dealing, I went to the HR department to inquire about my situation. I asked them if I could have a no-smoking accommodation—this means that I would not be scheduled in smoking sections due to my medical condition. Of course, a doctor’s letter outlining my condition was required and I surprisingly was able to receive this accommodation. I should have done this years ago! The HR department in my casino was very helpful. They told me if I were scheduled in a smoking section to visit them, and they would switch me out of there. While my casino management was able to accommodate me, they alluded to the fact that I should not tell the other dealers about my circumstance. I complied with their veiled request and told nobody. While this accommodation helped, a nonsmoking section of a casino is still very smoky.
When the pandemic shut the casinos down in March of 2020, we were not working for nearly 4 months. Coming back, I (and most other dealers) thought that the silver lining in this pandemic is that smoking in casinos would finally be banned for good. How naïve we were. By this time, I had left that shiny no-longer-new casino in Atlantic City after 17 years for a shiny new casino in Pennsylvania to be closer to home. After more than a year of smoke free dealing, my breathing had improved greatly. I thought there was no way they could ever bring that disgusting secondhand smoke back to the casinos after all we have been through. Still, I wanted to be proactive about it. So, around May of 2021, I visited the HR department of my new casino in PA and asked them for an accommodation. They told me that they were not sure if smoking would ever return but they would work with me. I supplied them with the necessary doctor’s letter (like before) and felt good that I had covered my bases.
On July 2, 2021, I came to work and felt like I just got punched in the stomach. My table had ash trays all over it. There was a sign on my table that said, “designated smoking section.” I wanted to vomit. I rushed into HR on my first break. There was ZERO warning from management, no email, no plan, no outline for staff to follow, just ash trays everywhere. The people in HR did not even know that smoking had returned to the casino. They told me they would talk to the scheduling department to inquire about my accommodation. But in the meantime, I would have to work my scheduled spot. It was a rough day. If not for my 2-year-old daughter and my family, I may have walked out and resigned that day. The next day, HR told me that the scheduling office would “try” to work with me, but being a new casino, they did not have a precedent for this accommodation. Since then, I have been scheduled in a smoking section twice. One day I was able to switch with somebody, and the other day I called in sick. I am currently looking for other options for my career path.
I feel deceived by the lawmakers of PA and NJ who allow smoking to continue in casinos, putting employees’ health at risk every day. The people who make these decisions do not understand the environment they are creating. They do not understand what it’s like to be on the casino floor every day for 8 hours. They do not understand that we cannot just walk away from the smoke if we want to. People say, “well they banned it years ago, and nobody came.” Yes, New Jersey banned smoking for 1 month back in 2008—at the height of the greatest economic recession in my lifetime. So yes, the casino made less money. Every casino in America was empty during those months, but it had nothing to do with smoking.
Lawmakers who allow smoking in casinos do not understand how smoke is affecting our lives, nor do they understand the habits of gamblers. The same people who I see smoking in the casino now are mostly the same people I have seen everyday during the pandemic when smoking was banned. During that time, those people had no problem stepping outside to smoke. What’s worse is the habits of nonsmokers. Most nonsmokers are repelled by the stink, but some of them think it’s nostalgic to smoke indoors. They come to a blackjack game with zero intentions of smoking cigarettes, then somebody lights up. They “oh wow, you can smoke here?!” In these cases, the smoker is more than happy to pass cigarettes around to all the nonsmokers to share as a way of being social—at the expense of a poor dealer. Why would a nonsmoker light up a cigarette when they are not addicted to nicotine? Because they can! It is the nightmare scenario that every dealer has experienced. If you give them a look, they’ll say “I don’t normally smoke” as if I am judging their lifestyle and not merely trying to breathe.
Some people will say “why don’t you tell them (management) you don’t like the smoke, and they will put you in a nonsmoking section?” If I’m feeling snarky, I will then explain that the nonsmoking section of a casino is very similar to the non-peeing section of a public pool. Smoke goes up, around, and everywhere. The nonsmoking section is only slightly better than the smoking section. Likewise, if they don’t want to swim in urine, they should try the non-peeing section.
I feel that New Jersey and Pennsylvania both want to ban smoking in casinos. But the casino operators in both states are afraid of losing a tiny fraction of revenue to the other state. Maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know. But loopholes in policies are keeping these casinos from doing the right thing. Banning smoking in casinos is something that everybody knows is the right thing to do. The return of smoking on July 4th made the news in both states. It was shocking to some, but then people just went about their lives and the story faded away. Lawmakers, you cannot let this story quietly go away. I have other coworkers with asthma, COPD, and some are currently pregnant. You need to close this loophole. You cannot leave these decisions up to the casinos! They do not care about doing the right thing. Lawmakers, you need to take the decision out of the casino’s hands. Now.
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