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N.J. casinos are exempt from indoor smoking bans. Employees have health worries

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A New Jersey judge is considering whether to ban smoking in Atlantic City casinos, reducing the health risk, so you only risk losing all your money. Efforts to address the issue in the legislature in New Jersey have failed over the years, so a group of employees decided to sue. Supporters of a smoking ban say it'll help workers and gamers breathe more easily. Opponents fear economic consequences. Here's Kenneth Burns of member station WHYY.

KENNETH BURNS, BYLINE: Lamont White has been a dealer in Atlantic City casinos for 40 years, mostly craps and blackjack. Smoking is allowed in a quarter of the gaming space, but White says smoking and non-smoking games can be next to each other.

LAMONT WHITE: The casinos put the smoking games wherever they want. So this can be a smoking game. This is a non-smoking game. This is a smoking slot machine. This is a non-smoking slot machine.

BURNS: When New Jersey banned indoor smoking in 2006, it allowed an exemption for casinos. Several other states, including Michigan and Pennsylvania, also allow smoking in at least some casinos. White is part of a group called Casino Employees Against Smoking Effects. The group joined the United Auto Workers union, which represents casino workers, in a recent lawsuit against the state to ban smoking. White says smokers try to be polite by holding their cigarettes off to the side, and they try not to blow smoke directly in his face. However...

WHITE: The worst phrase you can hear working in a casino is, could I have an ashtray, please? When somebody walks up to the game and asks for an ashtray, you know it's going to be a horrible experience.

BURNS: He says working in a smoky environment has affected his health and that some of his co-workers often deal with respiratory illnesses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and prevention, casino workers have nicotine levels at least 300% higher than employees in other work settings where smoking is allowed. The casino industry and Unite Here, the largest gaming workers union, oppose a smoking ban. They say the move would hurt jobs and state revenue.

So far this year, Atlantic City casinos have generated nearly $873 million. That's slightly down from that same time period last year, according to the state. Alan Feldman with the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says the industry is not just blowing smoke. Places that have implemented smoking bans have taken a financial hit temporarily.

ALAN FELDMAN: In each case, there was a very noticeable downturn in revenue, downturn in players coming. But as I understand it, in just about every case, again, over time, it recovered.

BURNS: Outside of Cesars in Atlantic City, Dwight Baxter (ph) and his wife are waiting for a shuttle after leaving the casino. They're smokers.

DWIGHT BAXTER: Gambling, smoking, drinking - they all go together.

BURNS: Opponents to a smoking ban argue gamblers who smoke will just go to other states where it's allowed. But Baxter says, even if smoking ended in Atlantic City casinos...

BAXTER: We would still come so long as they didn't ban it from the boardwalk.

BURNS: The judge overseeing the case said he will issue a ruling soon.

For NPR News, I'm Kenneth Burns in Atlantic City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kenneth Burns