Photo By DENNIS MYERS

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (OSH), an arm of the Centers for Disease Control, has asked casinos to ban smoking to protect their workers.

The action was prompted by a new study showing significant levels of a tobacco-specific carcinogenic toxin in the urine of workers in three Nevada casinos, a study prompted by the request of Nevada casino workers for health evaluations of their workplaces.

At least one of those employees lost her job after making her request.

The study, known in bureaucratic parlance as a health hazard evaluation (HHE), was conducted among 124 workers in the Bally’s, Paris and Caesars Palace casinos in Las Vegas. (The three casinos are all Harrah’s properties.)

After receiving requests for workplace evaluations from casino workers at the three casinos in early 2005, OSH conducted on-site evaluations at the three casinos. Workers were interviewed and questionnaires distributed. Biological and environmental monitoring was also conducted during the final site visit.

During the confidential medical interviews and the open discussions, casino dealers reported their worries and respiratory health effects related to environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), or secondhand smoke, with red or irritated eyes, cough and stuffy nose the most common complaints. “Dealers who worked in areas where smoking was permitted made up our study sample,” reported the HHE. “Casino employees in administrative and engineering jobs who worked in areas where smoking was not permitted made up the comparison group.”

From 1,188 total poker and non-poker casino dealers working in the three casinos, 124 non-poker casino dealers participated in the study.

Air samples were taken in gambling areas on heavy traffic days—Thursday, Friday and Saturday during the swing shift and on Sunday during the day shift. Samples were taken both in the “personal breathing zones” of individual casino workers and in the general areas they worked.

“We collected preshift and postshift urine samples on 114 NP casino dealers to determine whether levels of ETS biomarkers (COT and NNAL) in their urine would increase over an 8-hour work shift,” the study reports.

COT is cotanine, a metabolite of nicotine. NNAL is a major metabolite of a tobacco-specific pulmonary carcinogen.

Among findings:

“We found ETS components in the air. These components include nicotine, 4-vinyl pyridine, respirable dust, solanesol, benzene, toluene, p-dichloromethane, naphthalene, formaldehyde, and acetaldehyde.”

“We found increased urinary levels of one ETS component during the work shift. This finding shows that these components were absorbed in [non-poker] casino dealers’ bodies.”

There were also findings favorable to the casinos’ stance of supporting smoking over worker safety, but the presence of the toxins led to OSH asking the casinos to end smoking.

One national lobby group, Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, has been monitoring activities in the Nevada Legislature, where some lawmakers are trying to water down the state’s voter-approved anti-smoking law. The group’s director issued a statement on the Nevada situation:

“If anything, these [HHE] results should convince Nevada lawmakers to strengthen their state law to include the gaming floors of casinos, not roll it back to expose more workers to toxic secondhand smoke.”

In Colorado, casino anti-smoking forces said they were considering opening a chapter of their organization in Nevada if legislators succeed in undercutting the Nevada law. Stephanie Steinberg, director of the casino worker group Smoke Free Gaming, said casinos’ claims of economic distress because of anti-smoking laws lack credibility because they have been unable to show linkage between business downturn and anti-smoking laws as opposed to the recession.

“They’re combining the two, but the reality was gaming revenues were going down everywhere, so there is a timing aspect of it,” she said. “As a matter of fact, Nevada [gaming] revenues were down more than they were in Colorado when they [the anti-smoking laws] were enacted.”

The Nevada ban did not prohibit smoking in casinos, but the Colorado one now does. The Nevada partial ban on smoking, which excluded casinos from its provisions, went into effect on Dec. 8, 2006. A Colorado partial ban on smoking in public places was amended in 2007 to apply to casinos. It took effect on Jan. 1, 2008.

In addition to seeking a ban on smoking in the gambling industry, the HHE also calls for casinos to:

• Offer smoking cessation classes for employees.

• Make sure that ventilation systems are working properly.

• Form health and safety committees with employees and managers. These committees should meet regularly to address employee health concerns.

It also called on casino employees to take responsibility for part of the problem by quitting smoking and becoming involved in casino health and safety issues.

Casinos are required to post a copy of the study “for a period of 30 calendar days at or near the workplace(s) of affected employees.”

Caesars dealer Teresa Price, known as Terrie, said when the casino had dealers wear buttons advertising showroom performers or other attractions, it revealed how thick secondhand smoke is in a casino.

“And some days I would take off the button and there was an actual circle around the button from where there was soot around your shirt where the button was,” she said.

Price was one of the casino workers who asked for the workplace evaluation. She said she allowed her name to be used publicly because when the plans for the evaluation first became known at Caesars, many employees suspected it was a ploy for something more sinister, such as drug tests. Because she was known as a secondhand smoke activist—she had testified at the Nevada Legislature on the issue and worked on the anti-smoking initiative petition campaign—her name was helpful in calming the paranoia.

“A lot of dealers were afraid to sign up, because they didn’t know if it was a trick or something,” she said.

But she was also later fired.

Price said that for a long time at Caesars, back into the 1990s and ’80s, she was mostly left alone in spite of her anti-smoking activism, which clashed with the Caesars’ corporate stance on the issue. She even worked non-smoking tables for a time. But in more recent years, she said she was harassed by some supervisors over smoking issues, she said, which helped her decide to request the study. She said the workplace evaluation was scheduled and then halted because the federal agency turned its attention to Hurricane Katrina. At that point Price was fired. Then OSH rescheduled the Caesars evaluation, so she ended up not participating in the study she had helped launch.

At the time, Caesars dealers had no union, so she had little recourse. Since then, the dealers have unionized.

Price is pleased by the conclusions of the OSH study and said the results would have been even more pronounced if the agency had included a high-traffic weekend like Superbowl. And she thinks the casinos are defending a practice that customers themselves don’t care about.

“All the big champion fights are smoke free,” she said. “All the sports events are smoke free. All the showrooms are smoke free. All these things are smoke free because the same people who gamble come to Vegas for these huge events.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...