PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — A group fighting indoor smoking at casinos nationwide is inviting Portsmouth’s casino workers to join its ranks.

Casino Employees Against Smoking Effects (CEASE) says its leaders reached out to employees at Rivers Casino Portsmouth in an open letter addressed Tuesday.

“We want to help you… not suffer silently every day that you go to work,” the letter reads in part. “We know all about the fears of speaking out, and that’s why the first step of joining our group of thousands of casino employees nationwide will help ensure you have strength in numbers.”

This comes one day after the recently opened Portsmouth casino changed its smoking policy after heavy criticism. Some guests said they wouldn’t return unless changes were made.

The new policy breaks up the main casino floor, which previously allowed smoking throughout, into smoking and nonsmoking sections separated by signs. Other areas of the facility such as restaurants and poker room were already smoke-free.

CEASE and the organization Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights both argue the change doesn’t do enough to protect workers and guests, saying “having a smoking section in a casino is like having a peeing section in a pool.”

“We all must feed our families and pay the bills, therefore we must also breathe the dangerous secondhand smoke being blown into our faces for eight hours a day,” CEASE says. “As a result, too many of us have been dealt diagnoses of cancer, heart disease, asthma and more. We’ve had to breathe this poison through pregnancies, while receiving treatment for cancer, and while wondering what exactly is happening to our health as yet another smoker lights up three feet in front of us, not giving a damn about our well-being. We are essentially the only group of workers left in society forced to choose between our health and a paycheck.”

CEASE and Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights say Rivers’ claim of having “the most powerful ventilation system money can buy” doesn’t hold water, and that engineers who designed the ventilators acknowledge they don’t help with second-hand smoke.

CEASE is currently backing legislation to ban smoking loopholes in New Jersey, Rhode Island, Kansas and Pennsylvania, the latter of which has a Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh where smoking is allowed. Rivers’ other casino in Philadelphia notably opted to stay smoke-free after COVID restrictions were lifted.

Virginia’s Clean Air Act bans indoor smoking in nearly all public spaces in the commonwealth, but casinos were one of the places given an exception. WAVY has reached out to lawmakers, including Portsmouth’s Del. Don Scott and Sen. Louise Lucas, to see if they would support amending state law to ban smoking in Virginia casinos going forward. We’ll let you know what they say.

Facts about Portsmouth’s casino