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Navajo Community Smoking Bans Pick Up Steam, Trend Has Casinos Concerned

(Photo by Carrie Jung - KJZZ)
Rob Carr addresses a group of Navajo youths and elders at the Red Rock chapter house about the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke.

This year, dozens of communities on the Navajo Nation passed local clean air resolutions. They ban tobacco use in both government buildings and workplaces. But there’s concern about how these policies could affect tribal businesses like casinos, where smoking is legal and popular. 

Walking onto the gaming floor at the Twin Arrows Casino near Flagstaff is a sensory-rich experience. Winning bells and slot machine jingles are a constant. 

But in addition to hearing the sounds of the gaming floor, you smell cigarette smoke. Because this casino is located just inside the southern borders of the Navajo Nation, the Arizona Smoke Free Act doesn’t apply. That means smoking in an enclosed public space is legal. But in some communities on the reservation, that’s beginning to change.

Rob Carr is with the Oso Vista Ranch Project. It’s an organization in northwestern New Mexico that’s working to prevent Native youth from smoking. He’s speaking to a group of about 20 people from the Red Rock chapter, a Navajo community that’s a couple of hours from the Twin Arrows Casino.

"Right now, you’re probably wondering, 'what is commercial tobacco,'" said Carr as he tore the paper off a cigarette to reveal its contents.

Carr’s ultimate goal is to get this chapter to support a resolution banning smoking in public buildings.

In May, the group convinced the Crownpoint chapter to pass a similar ban, making it the first Navajo government entity to do so. Since then, 30 other communities have pledged to the same. For Carr, the secret to this success is the personal connection he makes.

"It’s a lot easier to get to the people by explaining it in Navajo more because they will understand it more feeling-wise," he said. 

And it’s that cultural connection that the National Native Network's Derek Bailey says is key to a program’s success.

He added there is a growing trend among tribal nations to enact smoke-free policies in some form.  

According to the Alaska Native Tribal Health consortium, about a third of that state’s 230 Native Villages have passed tobacco-free policies. In the lower 48, three tribal colleges have made their grounds smoke free and Bailey said more than 50 tribes have instituted tobacco-free policies in some form, including the Black Feet Nation and the Cherokee Nation.

"I would say [it's] definitely gaining steam," he said. 

But Derek Watchman, the CEO of the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise, is concerned about how these tobacco-free policies could impact tribal businesses. 

"Our position has been that it could be detrimental," he said. "There are studies out there that suggest smoking bans really, really impact revenue. And with limited revenue you can only employ so much."

Watchman said he wouldn’t mind a restriction on tobacco use if the competition signed on too. But for the most part that’s not the case. He worries that it could drive customers away.

"Every little bit the nation derives from its general fund base and all of its enterprises help to provide economic and community development for the people on the reservation," Watchman said. 

He contends that while patrons can and do smoke inside the Navajo Nation’s four casinos, an air filtration system keeps the air relatively clean.

So far, none of the chapters where casinos are located have passed clean air resolutions, but Watchman is keeping a close eye on the trend. 

Carrie Jung Senior Field Correspondent, Education Desk Carrie Jung began her public radio career in Albuquerque, N.M., where she fell in love with the diverse cultural scene and unique political environment of the Southwest. Jung has been heard on KJZZ since 2013 when she served as a regular contributor to the Fronteras Desk from KUNM Albuquerque. She covered several major stories there including New Mexico's Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage and Albuquerque's failed voter initiative to ban late-term abortions. Jung has also contributed stories about environmental and Native American issues to NPR's Morning Edition, PRI's The World, Al Jazeera America, WNYC's The Takeaway, and National Native News. She earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's in marketing, both from Clemson University. When Jung isn't producing content for KJZZ she can usually be found buried beneath mounds of fabric and quilting supplies. She recently co-authored a book, "Sweet And Simple Sewing," with her mother and sister, who are fabric designers.