In response to COVID-19, tribal casinos across the U.S. closed their doors, unplugging a vital lifeline to their communities’ economies. After implementing new health measures to help contain a virus that has ravaged parts of Indian Country, many tribal casinos are now reopening.
These health measures reflect recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and gaming industry trends, such as limiting capacity and monitoring temperatures. But in an astonishing move, many tribal leaders also are incorporating smoke-free indoor air policies as the industry reopens. As of this writing, one quarter of all tribal casinos in the country have reopened fully smoke-free, and many more have adopted partial smoke-free policies.
These decisions are creating ripples of necessary change across communities in Indian Country. Casinos have long been havens for smokers, and American Indians smoke at much higher rates than the general population. In Wisconsin, 37% of American Indian adults smoke, and in Minnesota the rate nears 60% — much higher than both states’ general smoking rates of 16% and 14%, respectively. Health disparities related to commercial tobacco use are also disproportionately high. (Commercial tobacco use like cigarette smoking is differentiated from tobacco used for traditional purposes, as seen locally in the “Keep Tobacco Sacred” advertising campaign.)
Tribal leaders recognized there was a unique opportunity to go smoke-free, and this bold move guarantees casinos are doing everything possible to protect employees and patrons from unclean air. Since smoking is harmful to the lungs and compromises the immune system, current and former smokers may have more severe complications from COVID-19 than nonsmokers.
Tribal leaders across the U.S. have been discussing these decisions with each other.
“There was a lot of debate around smoking … solely from a health standpoint,” said Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, on a National Indian Gaming Association webinar in August. “At this moment in time it is the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do.”
Tribes are empowered through sovereignty to express this vision outside the frame of U.S. state and federal governments.
“There is a direct correlation between our sovereignty and the low number of COVID-19 cases here in our homelands,” Jerome Brooks Bigjohn, council member for the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians in Wisconsin, said. “Without a doubt, hands down, our sovereignty has allowed us to make things safer.”
In Minnesota, Cathy Chavers, tribal chairwoman of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, declared her Fortune Bay Resort Casino smoke-free, stating, “This was not a difficult decision to make due to the pandemic.”
Notably, Fond-du-Luth Casino in Duluth and Black Bear Casino in Carlton have also gone completely smoke-free indoors. And other major venues in Minnesota and Wisconsin — including Treasure Island, Mystic Lake, Grand Casino Mille Lacs, and Potawatomi Hotel and Casino — have adopted partial smoke-free policies.
Ensuring indoor spaces are clean, healthy, and smoke-free is essential to limit the spread of the coronavirus — and to prevent the illness and death caused by smoking and secondhand-smoke exposure. The time for smoke-free tribal casinos and comprehensive tribal commercial tobacco-free policies is now. Tribes should adopt policies that are culturally responsive and have the strength to withstand pressure from lobbyists for the tobacco industry. Future generations deserve a standard that cherishes traditional tobacco as sacred while admonishing the health hazards of commercial tobacco.
Tribal leaders can’t do it all. Successful policy change depends on community support and respectful advocacy from far and near. We need the same energy in tribal areas that 28 states had when they enacted comprehensive smoke-free air policies.
You can help. Reach out to tribes near you with casinos that went smoke-free and congratulate them. Encourage people to visit smoke-free tribal casinos. The website for Americans for Nonsmokers Rights has updated lists of smoke-free casinos and resources that can be shared with tribal casinos that have not gone smoke-free or reopened.
Tribal leaders, please consider changing the status quo. Advocates, please don’t give up on the tribal commercial tobacco prevention movement. There is so much momentum, and everyone’s voice is needed for the challenges ahead. Our work is not done until every single tribal citizen is guaranteed safe breathing environments where they work, live, and have fun. This work is about holistically improving the quality of life for American Indians and casino patrons and employees everywhere.
Clinton Isham is a member of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and a tribal relations consultant to the Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation (smokefreecasinos.org/). CoCo Villaluz is a member of the Hidatsa, Assiniboine, and Chamorro tribes and associate director of health equity programs at ClearWay Minnesota (clearwaymn.org). Both work on commercial tobacco prevention within Indian Country.