Casinos need to clear air on secondhand smoke dangers

Teresa Price considers herself a proud Vegas girl. She was raised in the valley and schooled in the casino culture as a blackjack dealer for two decades. She knows the score, and the real odds.

The House wins for a reason. The odds are stacked in its favor.

Over the years, she also has learned the risks and rewards of bucking the green-felt system.

Many years ago, when she grew tired of dealing in rooms choked with cigarette smoke and decided to do something about it, Price was branded a heretic, a complainer, and worse.

"How was I characterized?" she asks. "Out of my mind. Most people would say the exact same thing. 'Oh, I know it's wrong. I know it hurts. I know it's bad.' The bosses would go, 'Oh, yeah, it's terrible for you, but that's the way it is because you work in a casino.' That was everybody's attitude: We know it's bad, but you work in a casino. You deserve it."

In those days, she recalls, no one dared mention the stench, irritation or asthma-like symptoms despite growing scientific suspicion linking secondhand smoke to cancer and lung disease. Like the black-lung dust in a white-collar coal mine, it came with the job. Take it or leave it.

"Now where you work, if you let everybody start smoking like the old days they would go nuts," Price says. "They would say this isn't right. But for some reason, the service workers are still subjected to it. And not only that, if they say anything, something happens to them. They get written up. They could lose their job."

The former Caesars Palace dealer, who has a lawsuit pending alleging smoking-related workplace harassment, no longer works in casinos. She spends much of her time working on nonsmoking issues.

Her public advocacy began in 1990, when she rallied support and testified on behalf of a bill that was terribly controversial at the time. Hold onto your seat: She was part of a group that wanted to carve out a nonsmoking section in restaurants.

Heresy! Anti-business! Anti-Vegas!

She heard it all. But a funny thing happened after the bill passed. Customers liked it. They liked being able to breathe while they ate.

Then there was 2007's Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act, which notably banned smoking in restaurants, government offices, and bars. Bar owners claimed the ban would put them out of business, and they would lose customers to the casinos, which of course were exempted from the law.

Heresy! Anti-business! Anti-Vegas!

But Price and the law's proponents weren't anti-Vegas. They were pro-Las Vegan. You know, the folks who live here, raise their children here, and want it to be a better community.

In November, a study of 192 countries reported secondhand smoke was responsible for an estimated 600,000 deaths worldwide. The truth about the dangers of secondhand smoke gets clearer each day.

Change occurs slowly here. But over time we've seen casino restaurants and showrooms become nonsmoking. Somehow, the tables are full and the headliners continue to pack in record crowds.

Does anyone really think casinos would be empty if a majority of the space featured smoke-free air?

"Everything that I've said all along is happening," Price says. "People are sick from secondhand smoke. They're outlawing it because they know everywhere you work it's bad. But here in the casinos, nothing is being done. The service workers are being completely ignored, as if we don't have the same lungs as everyone else."

While Price admits she is sensitive about workplace smoke, she reminds me of how smoking is perceived around the rest of the country.

In the end, this story isn't really about Teresa Price.

It's about Las Vegas and how it treats its working stiffs.

John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at