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Navajo Nation bans indoor smoking in public places, including casinos


The Navajo Nation has put an end to the use of cigarettes, including e-cigarettes and chewing tobacco, in public buildings and workplaces on tribal land. That includes its four casinos. This permanent ban is a result of more than a decade of work, which gained momentum because of the pandemic.

Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson is an expert on tobacco use in Native American communities, and she's also a member of the Navajo Nation. And she joins us now. Dr. Henderson, welcome.

PATRICIA NEZ HENDERSON: (Speaking Navajo). Thank you for inviting me today.

KURTZLEBEN: Of course. So how much of a problem is the use of commercial tobacco on tribal lands?

NEZ HENDERSON: Tobacco use among American Indian tribes have to be looked in two ways, right? So there's the ceremonial use of tobacco, and there's the casual use of commercial tobacco products. So in looking at commercial tobacco use among American Indians and Alaska Natives, we have one of the highest rates in the country. And the policy that was signed into law is going to have a huge impact on the health of our Navajo people.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, I mentioned up top that this ban took years to get passed. Why was it such a fight, and what finally gave it the momentum to happen?

NEZ HENDERSON: The Air is Life Coalition as well as Team Navajo Coalition have been working at this for the last 13 years. You know, the tobacco industry has really targeted American Indian tribes for a very, very long time. They understand tribal sovereignty, and they understand all the economic opportunities that tribes are trying to do right now, including gaming. So when we started moving forward with this legislation in 2008, the elected leaders understood the importance, but it was vetoed by the president, President Shirley, and his main response was that it would decrease the revenues of gaming by 30%, which, interestingly, it's the same tactic that the industry used against the hotels and the restaurants when, you know, all these industries were going smoke-free. So we really had to address that in this movement this last year.

KURTZLEBEN: How did the pandemic affect this fight also?

NEZ HENDERSON: There are over, I want to say, 400 and maybe 55 tribal-owned casinos throughout the United States. And when pandemic hit, most of these casinos were shut down. And then when they reopened the doors, you know, many of them went smoke-free. And the coalition really wanted to capitalize on that. We really focus on the health of casino workers who we know are the ones that are exposed to high rates of secondhand smoke exposure.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, earlier, you made a distinction between the everyday use of tobacco and the ceremonial use of tobacco. As I understand it, there's an exception on the ceremonial use. Why is that?

NEZ HENDERSON: We've been working with our traditional healers on Navajo Nation for over 15 years about the differences between ceremonial use versus commercial tobacco use. Unfortunately, because of federal policies that were put in place in the 1800s which banned the use of any forms of plants, any ceremonies on tribal lands and communities, the tobacco industry began to move their products onto tribal lands. And it was just, during that time, a lot easier for us, meaning tribal people, to begin to use commercial tobacco products in our ceremonies. Over the past 15 years, it was just a lot of education to our healers about the differences and for them to make their own decisions, create their own policies about the use of dzil nat'oh, which is sacred tobacco, in our ceremonies versus commercial tobacco products.

KURTZLEBEN: I see. So it's up to them. Sometimes they use commercial products; sometimes they don't, right?

NEZ HENDERSON: Yes. And I think it's just really educating our communities about what the industry - I keep saying the industry because it's really them that has put these products in the hands of our young people. They colonized a product that was sacred, right? And the tobacco industry basically put more additives in these plants to make it more addictive.

KURTZLEBEN: You've talked about this being a really important moment for the Navajo people. I'm wondering, is this also an important moment for other Native Americans?

NEZ HENDERSON: Absolutely. I think the primary message is this is a tribe that used its own sovereignty to make laws - very, very strong health policies. It's going to have a ripple effect not only here in the United States, but to other places where - like in Canada, where they have also high rates of smoking among their first nations.

KURTZLEBEN: That's Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson talking about the new ban on commercial tobacco products in public places and workplaces in the Navajo Nation. Dr. Henderson, thank you so much for talking with us.

NEZ HENDERSON: Thank you. (Speaking Navajo).

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY GUERRERO'S "HEADIN' WEST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.