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Longtime dealer sues Caesars over second-hand smoke

Suit seeks class-action status, alleges ventilation system inadequate

Updated Thursday, July 23, 2009 | 2:32 p.m.

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A proposed class-action lawsuit was filed in Las Vegas Wednesday against Harrah's Entertainment Inc. and Caesars Palace, alleging Caesars isn't doing enough to protect casino workers from second-hand tobacco smoke.

The lead plaintiff is Tomo Stephens, who says she was a blackjack dealer for about 20 years at Harrah's-owned Caesars on the Las Vegas Strip and quit her job June 16 on the advice of her doctor.

The federal lawsuit says pre-cancerous cells were found in her stomach and that over the years she was exposed to second-hand smoke causing irritation to her eyes, coughing, sore throat, shortness of breath, dizziness, wheezing or tightness in the chest, headache, nausea and ingestion of cancer-causing chemicals and toxins.

The lawsuit seeks to represent as a class all former, current and future Caesars employees exposed to unsafe levels of second-hand smoke.

The lawsuit alleges that while Las Vegas competitors such as the Bellagio and Palazzo have taken significant steps to deal with second-hand smoke, about all that Caesars has done is make some of its poker rooms smoke-free.

"Despite overwhelming scientific evidence, Caesars Palace has failed to protect the health and welfare of many of its employees who must perform their jobs while breathing in second-hand smoke," the suit charges.

Harrah's attorneys had not seen the lawsuit and the company had no comment on it, a spokeswoman said Thursday.

In the past, Harrah's officials have said they would consider a nationwide casino smoking ban as long as it covered all gaming venues.

The gaming industry generally has expressed concern about the issue, but individual casinos have not been inclined to implement smoking bans on their casino floors for competitive reasons.

In the suit against Caesars, the property specifically is accused of encouraging its customers to smoke. Employees walk the gaming floor selling cigars and cigarettes and Caesars provides free cigarettes to gamblers, the suit charges.

The property has not designated part of the casino floor smoke-free and lacks an adequate ventilation system, the suit says.

It alleges employees are forbidden from complaining about second-hand smoke and dealers cannot ask smokers to blow smoke away from their tables or move their ashtrays, the suit alleges.

And while Harrah's operates a health and wellness center for its Las Vegas-area employees, informational pamphlets detailing the dangers of second-hand smoke that used to be available at the center have been removed, the suit alleges.

The suit does not seek to recover damages for employees' alleged health problems related to tobacco smoke.

Rather, it seeks an order requiring Caesars Palace to take "reasonable measures" to protect its employees from second-hand smoke and that Harrah's make informational pamphlets detailing the dangers of second-hand smoke available at its health and wellness center.

The suit was filed by attorneys with the Chicago law firm KamberEdelson as well as by Las Vegas attorney Marc Cook of the firm Bailus Cook & Kelesis.

KamberEdelson is pursuing various class-action lawsuits around the country including one filed recently in Las Vegas claiming consumers are harmed by the long-running practice of taxi and limousine drivers steering men to strip clubs that pay commissions to the drivers.

Wednesday's lawsuit notes that Caesars Palace was included in a study released in May by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health confirming casino dealers had traces of a tobacco-specific carcinogen in their urine.

The results from 124 casino dealers at Bally’s, Caesars Palace and Paris Las Vegas -- all Harrah's properties -- were expected to back up the argument that casinos implement smoking bans.

The NIOSH report concluded: "Non-poker casino dealers at Bally’s, Paris, and Caesars Palace casinos are exposed to ETS (environmental tobacco smoke) in the workplace air, and have absorbed an ETS-specific component into their bodies, as demonstrated by detectable levels of urinary NNAL (a known lung carcinogen). The increase in NNAL in the urine of most non-poker casino dealers at the end of their work shift demonstrates that non-poker casino dealers are exposed to a known carcinogen in the tobacco smoke at the casinos. Non-poker casino dealers reported a higher prevalence of respiratory symptoms than to unexposed workers, but the results were not statistically significant. The best means of eliminating workplace exposure to ETS is to ban all smoking in the casinos."

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