Navajo Lawmakers Take Up Smoking Ban Measure

Navajo lawmakers are revisiting a smoking ban on the reservation with a bill that would exempt tribal casinos at least until their financing debts are paid off.

The ban would apply to smoking and chewing tobacco in all other public places across the 27,000 square-mile reservation but does not limit the use of tobacco in traditional ceremonies.

Smoking ban sign

Smoking ban sign

A committee made up of the 24 tribal lawmakers has endorsed the measure but the formal vote will come during the Navajo Nation Council’s summer session that starts Monday in Window Rock. Another version of the bill not currently on the council’s agenda does not allow tobacco use at any casino.

That’s the one Navajo President Ben Shelly would support, not the one tailored to casino interests, his spokeswoman said.

“We are aiming to protect our people’s health,” said Charmaine Jackson. “And all Navajo Nation workers should be able to breathe clean air and work in an environment free of tobacco smoke.”

The tribe’s gaming czar, Robert Winter, sees the measure lawmakers have on their agenda as a good compromise to limit second-hand smoke and address poverty on the reservation.

Winter said gaming officials have agreed to filter the air at casinos and designate most of the casino as smoke-free. Smoking would be allowed only at some slot machines, table games, and in outdoor areas and golf courses. No one would have to walk through a smoking area to get in or out of the buildings.

The tribe’s gaming enterprise expects to pay off its estimated $200 million debt for a handful of operating and planned casinos in about seven years, Winter said. At that point, the Tribal Council could decide whether to extend the smoking ban to the gaming facilities, according to the bill.

“We’re relying on council to look at this in a very balanced way,” Winter said. “It’s council who voted for and passed the statute to create the gaming enterprise. That requires us to maximize the gaming economy and do everything possible to hire Navajos. Poverty is a public health issue as well.”

Delegates on the previous Tribal Council failed to override a presidential veto of a billed that would have banned smoking and chewing tobacco on the reservation. Former Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. said at the time that he feared it would inhibit gambling revenue. The tribe operates two casinos in New Mexico and has broken ground on its largest casino east of Flagstaff that Winter said won’t be built if a smoking ban includes casinos.

The bill wouldn’t prohibit commercial tobacco sales on the reservation that are taxed by the tribe.

Anti-smoking advocates acknowledge that commercial tobacco use is not an overwhelming problem on the reservation but say they want to be proactive. They cite a 2008 Navajo youth survey that found almost one-fifth of middle school students said they smoked cigarettes or cigars, or used chewing tobacco within the past 30 days.

They contend that not even the best air filtration system is enough to keep people from being affected by second-hand smoke.

Shelly began advocating for a smoking ban early in his administration with an executive order that was found to be legally insufficient. He has since received awards, including one from the Indian Health Service, for his stance.

Jackson wouldn’t say whether Shelly would veto the smoking ban with an exemption for casinos if passed by the council. He would have 10 days once it reaches his desk to make a decision.

“We’ll wait until that time comes to see what the president does,” she said.

The council has three other items on its summer session agenda, including a bill to approve lease agreements between the Navajo Nation and a coal mining company that operates on the reservation.

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