U.S.
12:49 am
Mon August 18, 2014

Casinos Worry As More Navajo Communities Go Smoke-Free

Originally published on Wed August 27, 2014 4:15 am

Walking onto the gaming floor at the Twin Arrows Casino near Flagstaff, Ariz., is a sensory-rich experience, with winning bells and slot machine jingles a constant. But in addition to hearing the sounds of the gaming floor, visitors also smell cigarette smoke.

The Smoke-Free Arizona Act doesn't apply to this casino, located just inside the southern borders of the Navajo Nation. That means smoking in an enclosed public space is legal.

But in some communities on the reservation, that's beginning to change. Dozens of Navajo Nation communities passed local clean air resolutions this year. The measures ban tobacco use in government buildings and workplaces.

The Oso Vista Ranch Project, a youth development organization in northwestern New Mexico, is working to prevent Native American youth from smoking. In May, the group persuaded the Crownpoint chapter to ban smoking in public buildings, making it the first Navajo government entity to do so.

Since then, 30 other communities have pledged to do the same.

Rob Carr, a tobacco prevention specialist with the project, is speaking to a group of about 20 people from the Red Rock chapter, a Navajo community a couple of hours from the Twin Arrows Casino. Carr's ultimate goal is to get this chapter to support a similar resolution.

For Carr, the secret to this success is the personal connection he makes, in part by speaking to audiences in the Navajo language.

"It is a lot easier to get to the people by explaining it in Navajo, more because they will understand it more, feeling-wise," says Carr.

And it's that cultural connection that Derek Bailey, of the National Native Network, says is key to a program's success. The network works to reduce commercial tobacco use among Native Americans with funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We are seeing, definitely, a trend going towards tribal nations enacting legislation that pertains to smoke-free facilities," Bailey says.

According to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, about one-third of the state's 230 Native American villages have passed tobacco-free policies. In the Lower 48 states, three tribal colleges have made their grounds smoke-free, and Bailey says 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," says Bailey.

But others are concerned that the policies could affect tribal businesses like casinos. Derek Watchman, CEO of the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise, says "our position has been that it could be detrimental."

Watchman says 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 — so he worries that the policy could drive customers away.

"There are studies out there that suggest that smoking bans really, really impact revenue," Watchman says. "And with limited revenue, you can only employ so [many people]. ...

"Every little bit that 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," he says.

Watchman 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 Navajo chapters where casinos are located have passed clean-air resolutions, but Watchman is keeping a close eye on the trend.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Dozens of communities on the Navajo Nation have passed local clean-air resolutions this year. They've banned tobacco use in both government buildings and workplaces. What's not clear is how these policies could affect tribal businesses - such as casinos, where smoking is legal and popular. From our member station KJZZ, Carrie Jung reports.

CARRIE JUNG, BYLINE: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOT MACHINE)

JUNG: But in addition to hearing the sounds of the gaming floor, you'll 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: (Foreign language spoken). Right now we are going to go into - you're probably wondering what is commercial tobacco?

JUNG: Rob Carr is with the Oso Vista Ranch Project. It's a youth development organization in northwestern New Mexico. It'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.

CARR: As you can see, this is fine tobacco. But as we go up a little further, we're going to see nothing but stems.

JUNG: Carr's ultimate goal is to get this chapter to support a resolution banning smoking in public buildings. In May, the group convinced the Crown Point Chapter to pass a similar ban making it the first Navajo government entity to do so. Since then, 30 other communities have pledged to do the same. For Carr, the secret to this success is the personal connections he makes.

CARR: It is a lot easier to get to the people by explaining it in Navajo more because they will understand it more feeling-wise.

JUNG: And it's that cultural connection that Derek Bailey says is key to a program's success.

DEREK BAILEY: We are seeing definitely a trend going towards tribal nations enacting legislation that pertains to smoke-free facilities.

JUNG: Bailey works for the National Native Network. The group is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and works to reduce commercial tobacco use among Native Americans. According to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, about a third of the 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 says over 50 tribes have instituted tobacco-free policies in some form, including the Blackfeet Nation and the Cherokee Nation.

BAILEY: I would say, slowly gaining steam.

DEREK WATCHMAN: Our position has been that, you know, it could be detrimental.

JUNG: Derek Watchman is the CEO of the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise.

WATCHMAN: There's studies out there that suggest that smoking bans really, really impact revenue. And with limited revenue, you can only employ so much.

JUNG: Watchman says 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 it could drive customers away.

WATCHMAN: Every little bit that the Nation derives from its general fund days and all of its enterprises help to provide economic and community development for the people on the reservation.

JUNG: Watchman 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 has passed clean-air resolutions. But Watchman is keeping a close eye on the trend. For NPR News, I'm Carrie Jung. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.