By Kelli Goatley-Seals, MPH
When my son turned 16, he started looking for a job. Here is important context: I am a former contractor for a local health insurance company who provided wellness education to Nevada employees — including at local casinos.
So I told him one industry was completely off-limits: gaming.
The reason for this decree was the danger inherent to secondhand smoke. During the sessions I facilitated, I realized how prevalent exposure to smoke was in these workplaces, even for those not directly working in areas that allowed smoking. I personally saw the impact that secondhand smoke had on employees, because I had the chance to talk directly with them — I understood that they were concerned about their exposure and the health impacts that exposure was having on them.
This was all before the respiratory-virus-turned-pandemic that is now ravaging our world.
My son is now 18 and a freshman at the University of Nevada, Reno. And while I’m confident he’ll choose employment down the road that does not involve exposing himself to the toxins in smoke, the same can’t be said for some 40,000 employees in our area right now.
If their rate of smoking is similar to the overall smoking rate in Washoe County, the vast majority of those employees do not smoke. Yet they go to work every day and face untold dangers due to a potentially deadly combination of smoke and COVID.
People deserve to breathe clean, healthy air. They shouldn’t have to choose between clean air and a paycheck, and yet that’s the very choice many make during every shift. With unemployment numbers breaking record levels in Washoe County during this pandemic, some don’t have the choice to not work in a casino – this is what keeps roofs over their heads and food on the table for themselves and their families.
Most casino properties are clearly invested in the health of their employees, as evidenced by the very presence of the wellness classes I’ve taught. Tobacco education was part of these classes, covering topics like why smoking and using tobacco is harmful for health and how secondhand and third-hand smoke can also be harmful. Employees were provided with resources for quitting and strategies for reducing their exposure to secondhand smoke, which included ideas like making their homes and cars smoke free.
But casinos are putting their employees at risk with an environment that exposes them to tobacco smoke.
During the Q&A time of the casino wellness sessions, there were always comments and concerns from employees about the impacts of their workplace secondhand smoke exposure. Attendees would report going home after a shift with burning eyes, a sore throat, or a headache after being exposed to smoke during their shift. I would also often hear stories about employees who had their asthma triggered by tobacco smoke exposure at work.
This experience working with casino employees is one of the reasons I’m a founding member of Smoke Free Truckee Meadows, a movement of supporters who are working to pass local laws to protect the health of every casino and bar employee/guest. While the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act ensures smoke-free air in many workplaces, smoking is still permitted in gaming areas of casinos and in age-restricted stand-alone bars. These aren’t just social hangouts; they are where nearly 40,000 Nevadans earn a living. We believe their health should not be jeopardized simply because they are at work.
We started the Smoke Free Truckee Meadows movement before COVID became a common word in our lexicon, and yet the realities of smoke-free workplaces are now more important than ever before. Some casinos are answering the call to ensure cleaner air: Over 150 casinos across the nation are reopening smoke free after COVID closures, joining almost 800 casinos that were already smoke free. Just a little over a month ago, the gaming destination Park MGM in Las Vegas announced its casino would be completely smoke-free.
Health is in laser-focus now more than ever before. And now more than ever, we should do everything in our power to reduce health risks while people are at work.
If you’re interested in adding your voice to our movement – perhaps you have a loved one employed by a casino, or a close friend/relative who has suffered due to smoke exposure, or simply because you have a future 16-year-old-prospective employee whom you’d like to proactively protect – please sign our petition. The collective power of the petition’s signatories can send a strong message to those who can make changes to protect our local employees.
Then, visit SmokeFreeTruckeeMeadows.org. We’ve put together resources there where you can learn about the dangers of secondhand smoke, get involved, and find smoke-free establishments that have taken the initiative to protect their employees. We even have a place where you can input your zip code, which brings up a list of your elected officials — and a sample message you can send their way. Municipalities have the power to enact local laws that supersede the state and federal laws. Let’s encourage our elected officials in Reno, Sparks and Washoe County to make enacting this law a priority.
It’s time. Because no casino or bar employee should have to put their life on the line just to earn a paycheck.
Kelli Goatley-Seals, MPH, is a Reno mom, president of the Nevada Tobacco Prevention Coalition and a founding member of Smoke Free Truckee Meadows.