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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Smoking study capped Caesars dealer's long, lonely fight

13 May 2009

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- During the 25 years she worked as a Caesars Palace dealer, Terrie Price was one of a few vocal anti-smoking dissenters among thousands of largely silent casino workers. Price believes her efforts to force her employer to address secondhand smoke, even as a growing body of scientific research chronicled its dangers, cost her that job.

The release last week of the first federal study detailing the effects of secondhand smoke on Las Vegas casino employees — a study Price requested — vindicated those efforts, Price said.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health tracked more than 100 dealers at Bally's, Paris Las Vegas and Caesars Palace during on-site visits in 2005 and 2006. Researchers found the dealers were exposed to airborne chemicals associated with secondhand smoke during their shifts, had increased levels of tobacco-specific carcinogens in their urine after their shifts, and reported a host of respiratory problems potentially triggered by workplace smoke.

"We've been waiting a long time for this," said Price, 53.

When she first went to work as a blackjack and roulette dealer at Caesars in 1979, the resort was among many Las Vegas casinos that encouraged smoking by handing out free cigarettes to gamblers and providing ashtrays.

"Everyone knew smoking was harmful but there wasn't as much talk about the harmful effects of secondhand smoke," Price said. "And there wasn't as much choice to work in a nonsmoking environment. At Caesars, people would even say, 'I don't normally smoke but it's here, I might as well.' It's like you're supposed to do it."

Before long, the cumulative effects of breathing that smoke caught up with Price, who often left work with irritated sinuses or a headache.

At the time, she didn't advocate a smoking ban in casinos, but rather nonsmoking sections and smoke-free gaming tables. Customers regularly requested them, Price said.

A skin cancer survivor, Price obtained a doctor's note warning of her cancer risk to assist in her fight, which sometimes included daily calls to the casino manager.

Her efforts paid off in 1990, when Caesars Palace installed some nonsmoking tables.

The tables were removed in 2002.

Even though some Caesars-owned properties equipped gaming tables with small fans to blow smoke away from dealers, Price said, Caesars management refused to allow her to use a fan out of fear that it would offend smokers.

Price had filed a complaint on the dangers of secondhand smoke with Caesars' safety department. She filed another complaint, with the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration, alleging that management was harassing her for complaining about secondhand smoke.

A casino manager had threatened to suspend her for soliciting customers to request nonsmoking gaming tables, Price said in the complaint. She acknowledged recommending that customers who preferred nonsmoking tables talk to management, thinking her bosses would be more responsive to customers' wishes than her own.

Price said she didn't complain to customers about smoking. Most customers tried to keep smoke away from her and other dealers, she said.

But her clashes with management continued.

Price said she was suspended for three days in 2004 after a supervisor spotted a player at her table sitting sideways with an ashtray in her lap, blowing smoke away from Price.

"It was like, 'Why are you being so polite? Please blow smoke at our dealers,'?" Price said. "They didn't care about our health."

In January 2005, Price sent the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health a research request asking the federal agency to test the air at Caesars Palace. A second dealer filed an anonymous request on behalf of dealers at Bally's and Paris.

Price said she revealed her identity in the complaint to rally dealers to participate in the study.

"They were afraid the information would be used against them," Price said. "I had to convince them the study was legitimate."

By law, the institute, a division of the Health and Human Services Department and affiliated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, conducts on-site testing of workplace hazards at the request of employees or employers.

By the time representatives of the federal agency arrived in late July 2005 to begin their study, Price had been suspended from her job and was unable to participate.

Price was fired the following September after a gambler complained that she had blown smoke back at a player. Price denies doing so, arguing that the player had blown smoke in her face while she dealt cards, then jumped up and began yelling at Price.

"I felt like I was set up," she said.

Harrah's Entertainment in June 2005 acquired Caesars and the other properties studied by the institute.

Nevada OSHA completed its investigation of Price's complaint in January 2006. The agency, which regulates workplace safety and applies state law preventing discrimination against workers who make complaints, ruled it had found "insufficient" evidence of a violation.

In 2007 Price filed a lawsuit in Clark County District Court against Caesars, claiming she was fired in retaliation for her anti-smoking efforts at work.

Caesars has denied the allegations.

A judge has paved the way for an upcoming trial by denying the company's motion to dismiss the lawsuit and a request that it be settled out of court.

Price said her termination was a shock, especially after a long career dealing to high-rollers wagering hundreds, even thousands, of dollars per hand.

At home, Price shows off an Employee of the Month plaque from June 1994. She also has kept multiple letters from Caesars management thanking her for a job well done. Attached are copies of letters written by customers who commended Price.

"You work someplace for that long and you don't think you will get fired because you know you're a good employee, that you're not a cheater or a liar," she said.

Price hopes the federal study's results will aid her lawsuit by strengthening her claims about the dangers of secondhand smoke.

The institute study results aren't binding; with no enforcement power, the agency, which has called for casinos to ban smoking, may only make recommendations.

These days Price spends much of her time as an unpaid volunteer who assists anti-smoking advocates.

Price said the fight isn't over, as casinos have resisted efforts to ban smoking entirely. She hopes the study will prompt more casino workers to speak out and force the industry to change its position.

"Even if I'm no longer a dealer, someone else will take the job and end up breathing smoke. There's something in me that says this is wrong and I won't let go," she said. "At some point in time, things that are wrong change for the better.

"Smoking should not be part of the job, or something people have to put up with when they go to work."