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These Workers Are In A ‘Fight For Their Lives’ Against Secondhand Smoke

Casino dealers Lamont White, 61, left, Nicole Vitola, 49, and Pete Naccarelli, 46, on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on Jan. 18. The trio are leading an effort to outlaw smoking in the city's casinos, which have been exempted from a state ban since 2006.
Casino dealers Lamont White, 61, left, Nicole Vitola, 49, and Pete Naccarelli, 46, on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on Jan. 18. The trio are leading an effort to outlaw smoking in the city's casinos, which have been exempted from a state ban since 2006.

Casino dealers Lamont White, 61, left, Nicole Vitola, 49, and Pete Naccarelli, 46, on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on Jan. 18. The trio are leading an effort to outlaw smoking in the city's casinos, which have been exempted from a state ban since 2006.

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. ― It’s an off-season Thursday night at the Borgata casino, and Pete Naccarelli is having a great run at the $15 blackjack table. Only Naccarelli isn’t one of the gamblers. He’s the dealer slinging cards to them. What makes him so lucky tonight? None of the players at his table happens to be smoking.

“All it takes is one,” Naccarelli says on a short break from the blackjack pit.

Case in point: Naccarelli’s co-worker is dealing to two smokers just a few tables over. One man has the courtesy to keep his cigarette off the table and turns his back as he exhales. But the other holds his Marlboro Light beside his cards so that the smoke drifts into the dealer’s eyes. To the player’s left, perched on an otherwise empty chair, is an ashtray holding his cigar. Ash is strewn all over the seat.

Another player takes a break, lights a cig and flips the ashes into a trash can off to the side of the blackjack pit. Naccarelli says this is a no-no. 

“You’re supposed to actively be playing a game,” he says, citing the smoking rules.

Pete Naccarelli has been in the casino industry for 27 years. He says dealing to a table full of smokers can be
Pete Naccarelli has been in the casino industry for 27 years. He says dealing to a table full of smokers can be

Pete Naccarelli has been in the casino industry for 27 years. He says dealing to a table full of smokers can be "torture."

Welcome to Atlantic City, where casino operators and their statehouse allies still cling to a smoking ban carve-out for casino floors even as governments increasingly stamp smoking out of public life. The city’s slot machines and card tables are just about the only indoor common spaces left to light up in the Garden State ― a gross injustice, Naccarelli says, to the thousands of workers who deal cards, serve drinks and supervise games in the Monopoly city.

“You can’t smoke in parks, on beaches… but you can smoke directly in my face,” the 46-year-old says. “I can’t turn or move. We have chips, millions of dollars of chips in front of us here. We can’t turn our head. We have to just stand there and eat it. I mean, it’s just ― it’s torture.”

Casino operators have pushed back against the idea of a smoking ban, claiming they would lose revenue to casinos in Pennsylvania.
Casino operators have pushed back against the idea of a smoking ban, claiming they would lose revenue to casinos in Pennsylvania.

Casino operators have pushed back against the idea of a smoking ban, claiming they would lose revenue to casinos in Pennsylvania.

Naccarelli has been dealing for 27 years, almost all of it amid secondhand smoke, which research shows can cause heart disease, lung cancer and other illnesses. The smoke is hard for him to escape, physically and mentally. It leaches into his uniform, coming home with him when his shift ends at 4 a.m. It makes it harder to recover from colds and the flu. He sometimes finds himself hoping a smoker will have a bad run just so they’ll get up and leave his table.

Casinos in New Jersey and other states have been fighting smoking bans for years, claiming they would lead to lost revenue and force them to cut jobs. Their success has been mixed: 20 states now forbid smoking in their gambling venues, according to the nonprofit American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. In New Jersey, where smoking was outlawed in bars, restaurants and other public venues in 2006, casino operators can still allow it on 25% of the gaming floor. 

A woman smokes while playing slots at the former Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City in 2007. The City Council barred smoking the following year but quickly reversed the ban. Today casinos are allowed to have smoking on 25% of the game floor.
A woman smokes while playing slots at the former Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City in 2007. The City Council barred smoking the following year but quickly reversed the ban. Today casinos are allowed to have smoking on 25% of the game floor.

A woman smokes while playing slots at the former Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City in 2007. The City Council barred smoking the following year but quickly reversed the ban. Today casinos are allowed to have smoking on 25% of the game floor.

That means three-quarters of the floor is supposed to be smoke-free. But the smoking zones are typically spread out with no physical barriers between them and the nonsmoking areas and no obvious logic to where they start and end. Two players on slot machines might sit with their backs to one another just a few feet apart, one permitted to light up, the other not. Cocktail servers pass in and out of smoking areas as they ferry drinks while dealers are shuffled between smoking and nonsmoking tables throughout their shifts. 

“We tell the smoke not to drift,” Naccarelli jokes, “but unfortunately it doesn’t listen.”

Legislators in Trenton, the state capital, came close to passing a ban in December. But lobbying on the proposal was fierce, even splitting labor unions that represent different types of casino workers. The bill narrowly failed to get out of a state Senate committee after losing support, infuriating dealers who had hoped for a celebration. 

We can’t turn our head. We have to just stand there and eat it. I mean, it’s just – it’s torture.Dealer Pete Naccarelli

But the pro-smoking lobby may have finally found its match in Naccarelli and some of his fellow Borgata dealers. They’ve formed a genuinely grassroots coalition, rallying dealers from different casinos, shaming industry-aligned legislators and fast becoming seasoned political operators. With the New Jersey Legislature at the start of a new session, they hope a prohibition is finally at hand. 

“It’s become a fight for our lives,” Naccarelli says. “We’re scared, you know?”

The United Auto Workers, which represents dealers at the Caesars Atlantic City Hotel and Casino, has come out in support of a smoking ban.
The United Auto Workers, which represents dealers at the Caesars Atlantic City Hotel and Casino, has come out in support of a smoking ban.

The United Auto Workers, which represents dealers at the Caesars Atlantic City Hotel and Casino, has come out in support of a smoking ban.

‘They Came To Gamble’

Atlantic City’s dealers got a taste of fresh air early in the pandemic. Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy signed an emergency order in June 2020 that banned smoking in casinos because it would require removing masks, the first time the floors went entirely smoke-free. But Murphy signed an order the following year that ended the public health emergency brought about by the pandemic — and, with it, the smoking ban. 

Naccarelli’s former carpool mate, fellow Borgata dealer Nicole Vitola, couldn’t stomach the idea of returning to a smoky table. Having worked in casinos since 1996, Vitola always hated the exposure to secondhand smoke ― so much so that she had asked her supervisors, pre-COVID, if she could wear a mask while working. The request was denied, Vitola says, because they insisted on seeing her face at the table for security reasons.

With smoking set to return in the summer of 2021, Vitola started calling nonsmoking advocacy groups for help. One invited her to speak on the boardwalk at a rally. Vitola had never delivered a public speech, but she agreed.

Nicole Vitola, a dealer at the Borgata casino, speaks at a rally to ban smoking in April 2022. Vitola became outspoken on the issue when the state rescinded a temporary smoking ban implemented during the pandemic.
Nicole Vitola, a dealer at the Borgata casino, speaks at a rally to ban smoking in April 2022. Vitola became outspoken on the issue when the state rescinded a temporary smoking ban implemented during the pandemic.

Nicole Vitola, a dealer at the Borgata casino, speaks at a rally to ban smoking in April 2022. Vitola became outspoken on the issue when the state rescinded a temporary smoking ban implemented during the pandemic.

She wasn’t scared of speaking to the crowd.  “I was scared to get cancer,” she says. 

Smokers were free to light up again just before the July 4 holiday weekend. Naccarelli hoped the change would come with little fanfare; perhaps customers wouldn’t even realize the ban had been lifted. But at midnight, Naccarelli recalls, casino staff fanned out, placing ashtrays at the slot machines and card tables designated for smoking. He was so angry that during his break he started calling lawyers to see if anything could be done.

Naccarelli wasn’t the only dealer outraged by the change. Ricky Foster had once quit dealing, in 2019, after watching his father die of lung cancer. 

“This was a tough dude. He was a roofer, a motorcycle guy. I watched him buckle down to nothing, quick,” Foster, 46, says of his dad. “Seeing all this secondhand smoke was a huge factor in my decision to move on and change my career.”

Foster went to work painting lines for a highway lining company, but in 2020 a man driving a Jeep crashed into Foster’s worksite on the interstate, killing one crewmate and hospitalizing Foster. So he decided to put his dealer’s uniform back on in 2021, assuming the ban had been left in place.  

“I couldn’t believe it had gone back to smoking,” he says.

Naccarelli and Vitola were angry enough to start publicly challenging the law, as well as their employer’s powerful trade group, the Casino Association of New Jersey. So was their friend Lamont White, a Borgata dealer who’s been in the casinos since 1985. 

Lamont White, 61, grew up in Atlantic City and has been working in the casinos since 1985. He testified in favor of a smoking ban before state legislators.
Lamont White, 61, grew up in Atlantic City and has been working in the casinos since 1985. He testified in favor of a smoking ban before state legislators.

Lamont White, 61, grew up in Atlantic City and has been working in the casinos since 1985. He testified in favor of a smoking ban before state legislators.

White, 61, has always worried that his line of work may shorten his life, especially now that he has four grandchildren and a fifth on the way. He has never bought the industry’s claims that jobs will disappear if smoking is banned. When the pandemic hit, casinos were closed for 107 days and then subject to a 25% occupancy cap, leading to a 44% drop in revenue for the year. But White says smokers still showed up to play.  

“They couldn’t even drink a soda at the table,” the Atlantic City native says. “They didn’t care because they came to gamble.” 

White, Naccarelli and Vitola started connecting with more dealers through text, planning rallies and shuttling supporters to Trenton to meet with lawmakers. They formed a group, Casino Employees Against Smoking’s (Harmful) Effects ― or CEASE, an acronym that seemed inevitable. Their outspokenness was bold considering they don’t have union protections. 

At a diner outside the city, in Egg Harbor, New Jersey, just before Vitola heads in for her shift, the three of them meet on a Thursday morning. Vitola thumbs through her phone to check her work schedule for the day. Certain tables are known to be smokier than others, she says, and she would know by the table numbers what she could expect. She can’t see her assignments until about an hour before she starts.

“They notice that too many people call out when they know they’re on smoking games,” she says.

We can’t turn our head. We have to just stand there and eat it. I mean, it’s just – it’s torture.Dealer Pete Naccarelli

The dealers want to be clear: They don’t blame smokers. They blame the state for granting a carve-out to a powerful lobby. (State Sen. Richard Codey, the former Democratic governor who signed the 2006 legislation, has since said he regrets the casino exception, calling it “the wrong thing to do.”) They also blame the industry and its customer-is-always right attitude, which requires them to breathe the smoke without complaint. 

Most smokers try to be considerate, Naccarelli says. But the dynamic at a blackjack table doesn’t always lend itself to courtesy. People drink. They catch some bad hands. They start to blame the dealer. 

“They’re getting a little buzzed and they’re losing some money, and they’re looking right at you,” he explains. “It’s not convenient for them to turn and blow away from you.”

Dealers make their money primarily on tips. Atlantic City dealers are paid a sub-minimum wage, like restaurant servers ― in New Jersey, as low as $5.26 per hour before gratuities. Casual players have the misimpression that dealers want them to lose because dealers work for the house. In reality, dealers want them to win because winners tip. The Borgata has a reputation as one of the better-paying casinos in town, but Naccarelli still delivers for DoorDash on the side. 

Nicole Vitola says that dealing through her pregnancies were the most trying times of her career due to the risks of secondhand smoke.
Nicole Vitola says that dealing through her pregnancies were the most trying times of her career due to the risks of secondhand smoke.

Nicole Vitola says that dealing through her pregnancies were the most trying times of her career due to the risks of secondhand smoke.

More than anything, dealers want gamblers in the seats. That’s why Vitola says she wouldn’t push so hard for a smoking ban if she thought it would hurt revenue.

“I make 80% of my money on tips,” she says. “We have everything to lose if these players leave.”

In her more than 20 years inside casinos, Vitola says her most trying periods were during her pregnancies. She has a 23-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old son, and it still pains her when she thinks about what she exposed them to. Working amid secondhand smoke increases the likelihood of having a baby with low birthweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Never ever once did they say, 'Oh, you’re pregnant. Let’s put you on a nonsmoking game.'Dealer Nicole Vitola

“Can you imagine wondering what you’re doing [to] her? What’s happening to her while you’re pregnant?” Vitola asks. 

She warns that she’ll cry. 

Never ever once did they say, ’Oh, you’re pregnant. Let’s put you on a nonsmoking game,’” she says. “I was like a high-end dealer. I dealt to a lot of celebrities. And they would put you in a back private room and, of course, they hand out cigars. I was six months pregnant. Nobody’s thinking for us. Nobody’s protecting us.”

She’s heard it before: Why don’t you just get another job? 

She says she’s almost 50.

“This is what I know.”

The smoking issue has pitted labor unions in the city against one another.
The smoking issue has pitted labor unions in the city against one another.

The smoking issue has pitted labor unions in the city against one another.

A Rift In Labor

The dealers pushing for a ban have the support of the United Auto Workers, the union that represents dealers at the Caesars, Bally’s and Tropicana casinos in Atlantic City, though not the Borgata. The union’s hard-charging president, Shawn Fain, newly famous from the UAW’s historic strike against the Big Three automakers, has publicly denounced the gambling industry’s position as “preposterous.”

But the issue has also pitted the UAW against what’s normally a natural ally: Local 54, an affiliate of the powerful hospitality workers union Unite Here, which represents housekeepers, cocktail servers and bartenders in the city’s casinos and hotels. When dealers showed up to a hearing in Trenton in their anti-smoking shirts, they stood across from Local 54 members in their union gear. 

The union’s president, Donna DeCaprio, says that she’s always concerned about workers’ health and well-being but a ban would spell “economic catastrophe” for the city.

“I’m used to being across the table sparring it out with them,” she says of the casino operators, “but we are aligned on this issue simply because of the impact it will have on jobs.”

If a ban goes into effect, DeCaprio says, out-of-town chainsmokers will skip the Atlantic City Expressway and head to the floors in Pennsylvania where they could still light up. She predicts at least one Atlantic City casino would be forced to close.

Gambling, smoking and drinking – they’re all vices, and they all go hand in hand, whether we like it or not.Donna DeCaprio, president of Unite Here Local 54

Parx Casino in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, is entirely nonsmoking and seems to be thriving. But DeCaprio dismisses the comparison as a “locals’ casino” that doesn’t rely on visitors the way Atlantic City does. Locals will show up whether they can smoke or not, she says, whereas smokers from New York will find somewhere else to gamble. 

The Atlantic City council once implemented a casino smoking ban in 2008, then quickly suspended it after the industry reported a drop in revenue. DeCaprio points to that real-world experiment as a cause for caution. But overall U.S. smoking rates have dropped significantly in the past 16 years, and smokers have grown more accustomed to having to step outside due to changes in the law.

Donna DeCaprio, president of Unite Here Local 54, opposes a full smoking ban, arguing it would cost the city much-needed jobs.
Donna DeCaprio, president of Unite Here Local 54, opposes a full smoking ban, arguing it would cost the city much-needed jobs.

Donna DeCaprio, president of Unite Here Local 54, opposes a full smoking ban, arguing it would cost the city much-needed jobs.

DeCaprio’s union has not formally polled its membership on the issue, but she said several meetings with members convinced her they share leadership’s concerns about a ban. Fewer hours for workers would mean fewer workers qualifying for union health coverage.

“Our housekeepers are making $19 an hour now, with a pension and health care. These are good jobs. There aren’t other jobs like this in South Jersey,” she says. “Gambling, smoking and drinking ― they’re all vices, and they all go hand in hand, whether we like it or not.

Patrick Ashton, a UAW representative for dealers, says his friends at Local 54 are wrong on this one. He says it’s easier for them to oppose a ban because housekeepers don’t encounter secondhand smoke to the degree dealers do. (Hotels are still allowed to have guest rooms for smokers.) 

“The dealers are the only workers who are a captive audience to smoking for their whole shift,” Ashton says.

Local 54 has pushed for a “compromise” measure. Although no bill has been introduced, a few ideas have been floated. New Jersey could pass a trigger law that ends smoking in casinos if Pennsylvania does so first. Or the casinos could create separate smoking rooms with new ventilation systems, where dealers would ostensibly work only by choice. Dealers like Naccarelli say they would end up there involuntarily because they need hours and note that even a trade group for the HVAC industry says ventilation can’t prevent the risks of secondhand smoke.

Local 54 is apparently not the only union that opposes a ban. Foster, the dealer whose father died of lung cancer, says he ran into a painters’ union representative he knew when he was at the statehouse for a hearing on the smoking issue. Foster was surprised that the union had taken a position at all.

“He was like, ‘Listen, we need to keep our painters working in Atlantic City,’” Foster recounts. “I said, ‘You guys are unbelievable.’” 

The building trades unions oppose a complete and immediate ban on smoking. Their members get work at the casinos and could end up building new smoking rooms in a compromise, but Michael Laughlin, president of the local building trades council, says their position is really about the broader local economy. Atlantic City, where gambling was legalized in 1976, has ceded ground to other states and tribal lands as casinos have proliferated on the East Coast, a trend Laughlin predicts would accelerate.

He says he sympathizes with the dealers. 

Opponents of the smoking ban say they want to broker a
Opponents of the smoking ban say they want to broker a

Opponents of the smoking ban say they want to broker a "compromise" bill.

“If that was my son or daughter or wife, I wouldn’t want them working in that environment long term,” Laughlin says. “The trades do not want anyone to be exposed to smoke every day, but we also don’t want to see what’s left of the Atlantic City market crash and burn.”

A smoking ban had a lot of support in both houses of the legislature last year. But first it needed to make it out of the state’s Senate health committee in December. According to the UAW’s Ashton, the dealers lost a crucial backer, a soon-to-retire Democrat. Ashton says another vocal, heretofore supporter of the ban, an Atlantic City Republican who had rallied with dealers, started talking about crafting a compromise with the industry’s input. The bill was stuck.

Supporters of the ban lit cigarettes in the chamber as a protest. Ashton says he was removed by a state trooper. The dealers had just received their crash course in Jersey politics.

Brian Christopher, an online influencer for slot machines and casinos who has 650,000 followers on YouTube, argues that any loss of revenue due to a ban would be more than offset by new visitors happy not to be around smoke. He feels nauseated on smoky game floors, so he recently stopped promoting any casinos that still allow it, and he testified in favor of the ban in Atlantic City. He says his followers tend to be millennials and are overwhelmingly nonsmokers.

“It’s the same argument they used when they were getting rid of smoking in bars and restaurants,” Christopher says in a phone interview, just after boarding a smoke-free slots cruise that he’s headlining for Carnival Cruise Line. “They’re using scare tactics on [workers]. It’s horrible that they’re doing that.”

Like Atlantic City, Las Vegas still allows smoking on game floors; the Park MGM is the only entirely smoke-free casino on the Strip. Last year Christopher collaborated with the Plaza Hotel & Casino in downtown Vegas on developing a smoke-free, “social-media friendly” slots room, replete with specially styled selfie backdrops. It opened in June. 

“People walk in and say, ‘It smells so good,’” Christopher says. “I tell them, ‘It doesn’t actually have a smell ― that’s what you’re smelling.’”

A bill to ban smoking in Atlantic City's casinos could be voted on in New Jersey's state Senate later this year.
A bill to ban smoking in Atlantic City's casinos could be voted on in New Jersey's state Senate later this year.

A bill to ban smoking in Atlantic City's casinos could be voted on in New Jersey's state Senate later this year.

‘Two Separate Addictions’

On Jan. 29, legislators in Trenton passed the bill banning casino smoking out of the Senate health committee, where it had died repeatedly for more than a decade. Dealers pushing for the ban celebrated the legislative breakthrough but know that plenty of lobbying lies ahead of a floor vote that may come later this year.

Sen. Joseph Vitale, the Democratic chair of the health committee and a lead sponsor of the bill, says he has no interest in watering the bill down. He says he has already lost several co-sponsors due to lobbying and couldn’t put a timeline on a broader vote in the chamber. He calls the industry’s insistence that they will lose revenue a tacit admission that “smoking is their business model.”

“This is all greed. It isn’t anything else,” Vitale says. 

The Casino Association of New Jersey did not respond to interview requests for this story. The Borgata referred inquiries to the association.

Chris Moyer, an adviser to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation, says he believes the operators fear “a short-term drop in revenue” if a ban goes through. 

“These executives are incentivized to think on a very short-term basis,” Moyer says. “Even if they lose [just] 2% in a quarter, it’s bad for them and it’s bad for their career. It’s just not a very forward-looking industry.” 

He credits outspoken dealers ― Naccarelli, Vitola and White in particular ― for the legislative progress that’s been made toward a ban. The group they started has attracted members who work in casinos in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Nevada, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kansas and Nevada.

“The most compelling people in this argument are the workers, but it’s difficult to get them to speak out because they fear retaliation,” he says.

Lamont White (left), Nicole Vitola and Pete Naccarelli say they don't blame smokers for what they deal with -- they blame the state.
Lamont White (left), Nicole Vitola and Pete Naccarelli say they don't blame smokers for what they deal with -- they blame the state.

Lamont White (left), Nicole Vitola and Pete Naccarelli say they don't blame smokers for what they deal with -- they blame the state.

Naccarelli downplays their contributions ― “We’re just three idiots who deal,” he jokes ― but acknowledges how assertive they’ve become. It started with small things, like White wearing a mask to work that said “smoke-free air makes me smile.” But gradually more dealers started to speak out publicly and to ask players to mind where their smoke goes, something they never would have done in the past, Naccarelli says.

“Before we got together and started kind of empowering people… to say that was a death sentence. I mean, you can get fired,” Naccarelli says. “People are starting to understand, and this is why we’re fighting so hard.”

Smokers themselves seem divided on what a ban would mean for the city. Pasquale Nastramo, a frequent Atlantic City guest from the Queens borough of New York City who was smoking a cigar just outside the Hard Rock’s doors on a recent night, said he would find a new town to gamble in. He had just left a high-roller slots area where cigars are not allowed. 

“What really burns you up is when they tell you you can smoke a cigarette but not a cigar,” he says.

But a smoker from Brooklyn named Markie, who declines to give his last name unless he’s paid for it, tells me he doesn’t believe the predictions that a smoking ban would decimate the industry. I meet Markie as I’m walking through the floor of the Resorts casino, trying to figure out where smoking is allowed and where it’s prohibited. He’s having a cigarette at a slot machine, ignoring the no-smoking placard next to his empty cup. 

“They’re lying,” he says of the casino operators. “Gambling and smoking are two separate addictions. People need breaks when they gamble anyway.”

He stabs his cigarette out on a lime and flags down a cocktail server for a Jack Daniels. 

“This here,” Markie goes on, gesturing to the vying “smoking” and “no smoking” signs, “this doesn’t make sense. … Do you think smoke doesn’t travel?” 

Another gambler waves me over as I walk by. He taps two fingers to his lips. “Do you have a cigarette?” he asks.

I don’t.

“Good for you,” the man says.

Did the man hear they might ban smoking in casinos? Yes, he saw it on the news.

What will he do if it comes to pass?

He shrugs.

“I’ll just step outside,” he says.

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