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Casinos Worry As More Navajo Communities Go Smoke-Free

Tobacco prevention specialist Rob Carr speaks to a group of youth and elders at the Red Rock Chapter of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico.
Carrie Jung
Tobacco prevention specialist Rob Carr speaks to a group of youth and elders at the Red Rock Chapter of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico.

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.

Copyright 2014 KJZZ

Carrie began reporting from New Mexico in 2011, following environmental news, education and Native American issues. She’s worked with NPR’s Morning Edition, PRI’s The World, National Native News, and The Takeaway.