A renewed push for a smoking ban in Rhode Island casinos is sparked by protests in New Jersey

Rep. Teresa A. Tanzi, a Narragansett Democrat, said she plans to introduce a bill to ban smoking in casinos once the 2024 legislative session begins Jan. 2. This will be the third year in a row that she has introduced the bill.

Tanzi, a former smoker from New Jersey, said she couldn’t imagine smoking at the State House to protest the lack of action to ban smoking in casinos. “But I have to say, I laughed out loud and was just so proud of my Jersey brothers,” she said. “You can take the girl out of Jersey, but you can’t take Jersey out of the girl. So who knows?”

During an interview about the 2024 legislative session, Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, said he remains opposed to ending smoking at the state’s two casinos – Bally’s Twin River Lincoln Casino and Bally’s Tiverton Casino.

Ruggerio, a smoker who lives near the Twin River Casino, noted that Rhode Island will introduce online casino gambling, or “iGaming,” in March – an initiative he supported. “If you have iGaming, you can stay at home – you don’t have to go there,” he said. “If it (smoking) bothers you, you can stay home and play.”

Ruggerio argued that Rhode Island would lose revenue if it banned smoking in casinos. “If they want to give us the revenue we are losing out on because of this, I will quit smoking,” he said.

Proponents claim that government revenue would increase if casinos became completely smoke-free. But Ruggerio said: “I don’t see that. As I told the unions: Give us the $15 million we’re going to lose here – $15 (million) or more. They haven’t finished yet.”

Advocates point out that Massachusetts and Connecticut are among the states that have banned smoking in casinos.

Ruggerio said some Rhode Islanders went to the Encore Boston Harbor Casino after it opened in 2019 in Everett, Massachusetts, but he said, “They weren’t allowed to smoke there, especially in the winter, and they came back here.”

Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski, a South Kingstown Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said she, too, plans to reintroduce legislation to ban smoking in casinos starting in the 2024 session.

She noted that she supported legislation passed in 2004 that bans smoking in enclosed public spaces in Rhode Island, including restaurants, bars, malls, retail stores, schools and sports arenas. “After that, I was banned from going to restaurants,” she said. “But it turned out to be a good thing.”

Sosnowski credits Bally’s for installing ventilation systems and restricting smoking only to certain areas of the casino, but she said the dangers of secondhand smoke continue to exist for employees and customers. “We need to make a compelling case that health is more important than the almighty dollar,” she said.

Sosnowski said, “I have the utmost respect for the Senate president,” and she recognizes that he is trying to protect an important source of state revenue.

However, she said, studies show that casino revenue increases when smoking is banned. “I don’t think they would lose a dime,” she said.

A 2022 report from Las Vegas-based C3 Gaming found that the pandemic has changed consumer expectations and behavior, including attitudes toward smoking in casinos. “Data from multiple jurisdictions clearly show that a smoking ban no longer results in a dramatic decline in gambling revenue,” the report said. “In fact, non-smoking accommodations appear to perform better than their counterparts that continue to allow smoking.”

Tanzi said opponents of the 2004 smoking ban for most indoor spaces also expected a loss of revenue for restaurants and bars. But she said, “The sky hasn’t fallen, and we’re all better off for it.”

While Ruggerio predicted a loss of revenue, Tanzi said, “I am optimistic that this would improve the situation for casino employees and the state budget’s bottom line.”

Tanzi said she wasn’t sure what the bill’s prospects would be in the next legislative session, but said she would continue to introduce it until it becomes law. “It is a human tragedy that is easily preventable,” she said.

Baker, 58, said she has been moved to a non-smoking area of ​​the Twin River Casino but still takes several medications and uses two inhalers for breathing problems that she attributes to the cigarette smoke she inhales during her 30 years working in casinos has. She said many customers have told her they prefer to go to casinos in Massachusetts and Connecticut because they are smoke-free.

“The Legislature needs to do the right thing for the rest of the workforce, like it did in 2004,” Baker said. “I have hope – if Ruggerio would just wake up, smell the coffee and see that the casinos are doing better.”

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. follow him @FitzProv.

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