Shelly vetoes smoking ban, cites protection

By Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Aug. 13, 2011

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President Ben Shelly has vetoed the Navajo Nation Smoking Regulation Act of 2011, which would have exempted casinos from a ban on smoking in public places.

Shelly, who recently has received multiple kudos from national anti-smoking advocates, faulted the legislation for lacking language he said was needed to emphasize the importance of protecting Navajo infants and children from the dangers of smoke and tobacco usage.

In an Aug. 5 letter to Speaker Johnny Naize and the Navajo Nation Council, Shelly said, "I ran on a platform of health, education, economic prosperity, open government and technology. I re-pledge my commitment to protect our Navajo people from cancer or diseases caused by exposure to second hand smoke or tobacco use."

The bill would have exempted casinos until all their construction debts were paid. At that point, the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise would have to implement a smoking ban at the direction of the Council.

Even with those considerations, "the passage of this legislation does not adequately address any given employees who are subjected to a smoking workplace environment," Shelly said.

He emphasized the health problems caused by tobacco use, particularly from secondhand smoke.

"It is critical to acknowledge the reality of the health risk, proven by scientific evidence, and the reason why there is a need for a smoke-free policy," Shelly said. "Secondhand smoke exposure can cause cancer, cardiovascular diseases in adults, and respiratory diseases in children and adults."

Shelly said he rejected the bill, approved during the Council's summer session, because it is the government's responsibility to protect the health of the people, especially those who cannot protect themselves.

Shelly noted that the smoking bill did not clearly explain what constitutes "public places" and "reasonable distance."

As for ceremonial and traditional tobacco use, the legislation "leaves the door open for restricting traditional use for ceremonial purposes," he said.

The bill also does not explain how the gaming enterprise will work with the Navajo Nation's Division of Health to address public education and prevention.


"This legislation should have included at least a directive between the entities and other divisions or programs, if appropriate, to establish a cooperative relationship while the gaming enterprise is allowed the exception," Shelly said.

The bill directed the gaming enterprise to pay $150,000 for smoking prevention but did not specify a payment schedule.

"This legislation as it stands is not the product of cooperative collaboration that is necessary to fulfill our responsibility to the Navajo people," Shelly said.

Efforts to reach the bill's sponsor, Elmer P. Begay (Dilkon/Greasewood Springs/Indian Wells/Teesto/White Cone) for comment were unsuccessful as of press time Wednesday.

In order to accomplish a more effective bill, Shelly suggested that collaboration take place between the gaming enterprise, the divisions of Health and Public Safety, and the judicial branch.

There are two casinos operating on the Navajo Nation - Fire Rock Navajo Casino in Church Rock, N.M., and Flowing Water Navajo Casino in Hogback, N.M.

According to a booklet distributed to delegates during the summer session, 26 percent of the gaming floor at Fire Rock is non-smoking.

The gaming enterprise also states that 7,930 square feet of the gaming floor at Northern Edge Navajo Casino, now under construction in Upper Fruitland, N.M., will be smoke-free and the Twin Arrows Casino will have 14,155 square feet designated as smoke-free.

Construction on Twin Arrows, located near Flagstaff, was scheduled to start Aug. 15 but that date has been rescheduled to Sept. 15, said gaming enterprise CEO Bob Winter.

Delegate Katherine Benally (Chilchinbeto/Dennehotso/Kayenta) is sponsoring a bill that would not exempt the casinos from a ban on use of commercial tobacco products in public places, work areas and private vehicles when children are present.

So far Benally's bill has been presented to the Budget and Finance Committee, where it received no comments and the committee voted to give it a "do not pass" recommendation.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Winter said smoking continues to be allowed at casinos until the Council decides the next step - either attempting an override or considering Benally's bill.

Winter said if smoking is banned at the casinos it will stop the development of Twin Arrows, drive customers away and decrease employment opportunities.

He noted that after a local newspaper ran an article Monday under the headline, "No smoking in casinos," Fire Rock experienced a 25 percent drop in attendance and a 20 percent drop in gaming activity.

"We saw a rather dramatic effect after that headline," he said, adding that the average attendance on Tuesdays is 4,000.

As for Shelly's comment that there is no communication between the gaming enterprise and the Division of Health, Winter said, "It's not for the casino to approach the program."

But if the executive branch and the Division of Health were to implement such a program, the gaming enterprise would provide financial assistance, he said.

In April, Shelly signed an executive order banning smoking in public places but it was squelched by the tribe's Department of Justice, which said the order was not enforceable and the president, as head of the executive branch, only had authority to impose a ban within offices of that branch.

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