Rhode Island Senate President Comments on Casino Smoking, Facing Backlash
Rhode Island Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D-North Providence) made disparaging comments last week about anti-smoking casino workers in his state while on a major news podcast.
The Senator spoke on his stance on casino smoking during the 200th episode of The Boston Globe and PBS’s Rhode Island Report podcast.
“I mean, they could wear a mask. They can work in an area where they don’t permit smoking,” Ruggerio said. “So, I think the adjustment has to be made, not legislatively, but between the workers and Bally’s.”
Rhode Island does not allow general workplace smoking, under the Public Health and Workplace Safety Act. But there is an exemption for its two legal casinos.
CEASE the Blame
Some employees at those casinos, Bally’s Twin River and Bally’s Tiverton, are campaigning for a smoke-free workplace.
The workers in question have been part of the national campaign Casino Employees Against Smoking Effects, or CEASE, since 2022.
The organization’s local leaders were not happy with Ruggerio’s comments.
Vanessa Baker formerly worked at Bally’s as a table game supervisor. She’s now a coleader with CEASE’s Rhode Island chapter.
“No one should be forced to breathe secondhand smoke while on the job, period,” she said.
“For the Senate President to blame casino workers for ‘agreeing’ to this job is a slap in the face to the hundreds of workers who are the backbone of the casino industry.”
The 50-year-old Baker told local news outlet the Providence Journal in 2022 that secondhand smoke in casinos had forced her to take medical leave.
“I’m newly diagnosed with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and back on medication for respiratory issues clearly caused by exposure to secondhand smoke,” she said.
All of a Sudden
Senate President Ruggerio clearly isn’t as concerned as the casino workers.
“Those people took those jobs knowing that there was smoking,” Ruggerio said on the Rhode Island Report. “Now, all of a sudden, there’s a small group who feels that it’s not good for their health.”
Ruggerio said he thinks this is an issue to be resolved between Bally’s and their employees, without legislation involved.
“I’d like to see some kind of HVAC work done to the place, and the smoke basically accumulates in the upper floors, and it just sits there,” he said. “So, I think they need to do something with their HVAC system.”
Bally’s has taken efforts to calm the concerns of some of its 1,000-strong Rhode Island casino workforce. They have nonsmoking areas on the casino floor, and have installed special ventilation systems.
But many of the casino workers themselves think those steps aren’t enough.
“I am an 85-year-old disabled veteran working as a security officer at the Bally’s Tiverton Hotel/Casino, and have done so since the opening,” said employee Arthur Caesar via email during an open hearing on the issue last year.
“I have COPD, the smoking here is making my condition worse, even though I wear a mask on duty,” Caesar said.
And it’s not just the workers.
Earlier this year, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers sent an open letter to Rhode Island lawmakers on the efficacy of ventilation against secondhand smoke.
“There is not currently available or reasonably anticipated ventilation or air-cleaning system that can adequately control or significantly reduce the health risks of [environmental tobacco smoke] to an acceptable level,” the letter said.
Ruggerio may not want lawmakers to get involved on the issue. But CEASE certainly does.
“It is shameful that Rhode Island is the only remaining state in our region that allows smoking inside casinos,” Baker said. “We have a bipartisan majority of the State House in support of legislation to end indoor smoking and protect workers. We urge leadership to bring the bills for a vote.”