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Legislators hear debate on extending smoking bans to casinos

After being diagnosed with asthma many years ago and emphysema more recently, Heather Sanford struggles to breathe and has days where she can't walk and talk at the same time.

An assistant floor supervisor in the table games department at Foxwoods, she said players could be smoking while inches away from dealers, and "we're trapped while poison is blown directly into our faces."

But due to the pandemic, Foxwoods has voluntarily stopped allowing smoking — as has Mohegan Sun — and now her eyes don't burn and water.

"If Foxwoods were to allow smoking on the gaming floor again, I would have to choose between health and my career," Sanford said.

Sanford was one of several people from the UAW union who addressed the legislature's Public Health Committee and Labor and Public Employees Committee on Monday in an informational hearing on the topic of extending the smoking ban in public places to include casinos, which are exempt from statewide smoking prohibitions passed in 2003.

But representatives of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and Mohegan Tribe, which respectively operate Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, said such an extension would violate tribal sovereignty.

"Debating what the laws should or shouldn't be for a sovereign territory, I contend, is no different than the legislature debating what laws you should enact for Rhode Island or New York," Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Chairman Rodney Butler said. He said he welcomes any discussion as it relates to health but "can't support the state of Connecticut acting in a manner that is disrespectful or contrary to tribal sovereignty and our government-to-government relationship."

Kaighn Smith, an attorney representing the tribal nation, said he was surprised by the interest in passing a bill when collective bargaining could address smoking.

UAW Region 9A Director Beverley Brakeman said she had a brief conversation with Butler expressing interest in continuing the ban beyond the pandemic and he seemed open to it. But she said the union only has a collective bargaining agreement with Foxwoods and can't negotiate with Mohegan Sun.

V. Heather Sibbison, an attorney speaking on behalf of the Mohegan Tribe, said about 90% of Mohegan Sun is non-smoking, and employees who wish to work in non-smoking sections are entitled to do so.

At Foxwoods, 25-year dealer David Sherman said the union has negotiated non-smoking pits but there are more dealers asking to get into those pits than there are spots. He said collective bargaining is not enough.

"We are exposed to toxic secondhand smoke. We are the only workers not protected in the state of Connecticut," Sherman said, asking legislators to "ban smoke forever."

Secondhand smoke consultant James Repace cited a 2020 document from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers stating that neither ventilation, air distribution, nor air cleaning should be relied upon to control exposure to environmental tobacco smoke.

Michael Wishnie, a professor at Yale Law School, noted that the compacts the tribes have with the state stipulate that their health and safety standards be no less rigorous than ones Connecticut adapts.

It is his view that the legislature has the authority to extend the smoking ban to the casinos. In 2008, then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal concluded that extending the smoking ban would be lawful.

Smith pushed back, saying, "There's this kind of notion behind this whole proposition that the Indians can't be trusted."

Labor Committee Co-Chair Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, said she's never heard anyone in the legislature make that kind of statement. As the meeting ended, due to the House of Representatives going into session, she concluded by saying she believes "we can find a way to reach common ground and protect all the workers, and the public."

e.moser@theday.com

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