Navajo casinos exempt under commercial tobacco ban

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Navajo Nation lawmakers have voted to prohibit smoking in public places on the vast reservation with an exemption for tribal casinos.

The lawmakers heavily debated the measure before voting 14-5 in favor of it Wednesday. Under the bill, the Tribal Council can reconsider the casino exemption once gaming officials pay off their financing debts.

Some lawmakers saw smoking or chewing tobacco as a personal right that shouldn’t be regulated by the tribal government and argued that a ban would inhibit gaming revenue. Critics said no one should be exposed involuntarily to secondhand smoke and that any exemption sends the wrong message to Navajo youth.

The bill now heads to tribal President Ben Shelly, who urged lawmakers this week not to approve it but hasn’t said whether he would veto it once it reaches his desk.

The situation was different three years ago when Shelly’s predecessor, Joe Shirley Jr., struck down a bill to implement a smoking ban. Neither bill prohibited commercial tobacco sales on the reservation that are taxed by the tribe or put limits on the use of tobacco in traditional ceremonies.

Anti-smoking advocates like Patricia Nez Henderson say they’ll now lobby the lawmakers to make sure that a veto she anticipates from Shelly sticks. She said lawmakers have exposed Navajos to deadly toxins “just to earn a buck.”

The legislation acknowledges the health effects of secondhand smoke, but its sponsor pointed to thousands of jobs casinos create through construction and permanent employment and touted it as a compromise. The Navajo Nation operates two casinos in New Mexico and has broken ground on what will be its largest facility east of Flagstaff.

Gaming officials told lawmakers that business at the casinos would suffer if patrons couldn’t smoke, and financing for planned casinos would be in jeopardy should a smoking ban include casinos. They expect to repay an estimated $200 million in debt in about seven years.

“We’re trying to mitigate our business risks associated with a 100 percent smoking ban, provide the jobs and revenue that the Navajo Nation so badly needs and at the end of the day become entirely smoke-free for our people,” said Sean McCabe, chairman of tribe’s gaming board.

“Once we eliminate that debt, pay off that debt, our business risk is gone,” he said.

Under the legislation, smoking is allowed only in designated areas of the casinos like at slot machines, and in outdoor areas and golf courses. Lawmakers also amended the bill to set aside $150,000 annually from gaming revenues for anti-smoking education.

Shelly said the measure doesn’t go far enough to protect the health of Navajos. In a letter to lawmakers, he said the measure is an unfunded mandate to tribal health and public safety officials who are tasked with enforcing it. Anyone found violating the measure faces a fine of up to $100 for the first offense and up to $500 on the third offense.

Cigarette or cigar smoking is not a common sight on the reservation, but Shelly and other health advocates say they want to be proactive.

“We all know smoking is not good for our people,” said Delegate Katherine Benally. “By supporting this legislation, we will say that it’s OK.”

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