Navajo Nation Council backs bill to ban tobacco usage in public spaces

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — A bill to ban commercial tobacco product use in public spaces, worksites and casinos was backed by the Navajo Nation Council during the fall session on Oct. 19.

The council voted 20-3 in favor of the measure, known as the Nilch' éí Bee Ííná – Air is Life Act of 2021. It does not restrict using tobacco products inside homes or the use of ceremonial tobacco.

Supporters said that the bill protects a person's health – especially those who work at the tribe's four casinos – while opponents said it was overreach and would discourage people from visiting the gaming operations.

This is the latest proposal that called for establishing smoke-free policies across the tribal land.

"To be exposed to secondhand smoke even though you're a non-smoker is one that is involuntary exposure and that's what we're trying to prevent," Delegate Daniel E. Tso, the bill's sponsor, said during the discussion.

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A bill that called to ban commercial tobacco products usage in public spaces, worksites and casinos was considered and passed by the Navajo Nation Council on Oct. 19.

Although delegates approved the legislation, it still needs to go to tribal President Jonathan Nez for his consideration. He will have 10 calendar days to sign or veto the resolution after it is submitted to his office.

The four casinos that operate under the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise reopened this year with no smoking inside the buildings in accordance with COVID-19 safety protocols. However, smoking is allowed outside in designated areas near the facilities.

Brian Parrish, the enterprise's interim CEO, said on Oct. 20 that the council rendered their decision after studying the issue carefully.

"We're going to do everything in our power to continue to grow employment and improve our business and help the Navajo Nation every way that we can," Parrish said.

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This screenshot shows the vote by Navajo Nation Council delegates on a bill that proposed banning commercial tobacco products in public and work places on the Navajo Nation.

At the council session on Tuesday, Delegate Elmer Begay attempted to modify the bill and exclude casinos from the initiative.

The exemption would have been in place until the gaming enterprise repays its debt obligation to the tribal government and to the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority under the amendment.

That repayment is approximately $200 million, according to Speaker Seth Damon.

Patricia Nez Henderson has been working in tobacco control and prevention for more than a decade as well as working for 13 years to pass a comprehensive smoke-free policy on the tribal land.

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She spoke in favor the bill during the council's discussion, calling the act "a preventative health policy."

Nez Henderson explained that cigarette smoking rates have been historically low among tribal members, but recent data shows usage is increasing among young Navajos because social norms have influenced and changed behaviors.

"The beautiful thing that will happen is within 5-10 years these rates will begin to go down because of these strong policies that we're putting in place for our people," Nez Henderson said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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