Opinion: What happened when smoking was banned in Native American casinos

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This development may have once seemed unthinkable in communities where tobacco use is both a sacred ritual and a deeply entrenched public health burden. But it happens. It’s a stark reversal given that the tobacco industry has pushed its toxic products onto Native American lands for a century or more, and the gambling industry has opposed smoking bans since the onset. Indian casinos in the 1980s.

Addiction prevention and treatment advocates can now learn from this victory. We should work hard to help our tribal nations with only temporary restrictions on smoking to make them permanent.

Traditional healers have been careful to explain and preserve the crucial distinction between ceremonial tobacco, which has always been used in spiritual and cultural contexts, and commercial tobacco products, whose sole purpose is the pursuit of the all-dollar. powerful. This distinction faded for many years, to the great detriment of the health and well-being of American Indians.
Federal policies enacted in the 1800s banned Native American cultural and religious practices, limiting the ritual use of traditional plants like tobacco. Another blow to tradition came from the tobacco industry in the diversion of Native American culture onto commercial tobacco packaging, which began in 1904.
More recently, the commercial tobacco industry has targeted American Indians with its poison by offering price cuts, bingo and casino promotions and other gimmicks to lure consumers.

Commercial products are very different from the plants used in religious rites – in Native American communities – but Native American iconography and imagery have been used to sell cigars, cigarettes, chewing tobacco and a false story in which the Indian culture and nicotine were indelibly linked.

It took a lot of effort and education to reverse this history. Casinos feared that not smoking would cost them customers and valuable revenue, but for a number of casinos across the country, revenue has increased despite the smoking ban. The bans don’t seem to deter players.
Additionally, Native American communities that used commercial tobacco sometimes confused tradition with addiction. Public health advocates had their hands full fighting a range of scourges – not just commercial tobacco but other addictive drugs – and for essentials that were sorely lacking on reserves, such as water and fuel. clean air, with little money or support.
Then, two years ago, Covid-19 hit and casino profits plunged. Advocates took the opportunity to present options to industry leaders. Many casinos have reopened with new policies designed to make it easier for customers to breathe and not get sick. They included unprecedented smoking restrictions. It’s hard to smoke with a mask on. But to everyone’s surprise, it looks like going smoke-free could be good for business, as evidenced by soaring profits at other smoke-free casinos.
Covid and smoking are parallel disasters. The pandemic has killed more than 950,000 people in the United States over the past two years. The use of commercial tobacco products kills around 500,000 people a year.
Many deaths result from disease laid upon injustice. Indian reservations and other communities of color have long been plagued by poverty, poor health and inadequate health care. For generations, they have also been the target of the tobacco industry’s aggressive and predatory marketing. It’s no wonder they suffer disproportionately from lung and heart disease, diabetes, lung cancer and other tobacco-related conditions.

The industry’s deadly products create many opportunities for an opportunistic virus to sweep up and reduce those who tobacco has made vulnerable.

These are the challenges facing those trying to improve public health in Indian country. Commercial tobacco is a powerfully addictive drug, and Covid-19 is unforgiving, posing a great risk to smokers.
Saving lives often starts with getting people to stop their addiction to tobacco. It can be difficult, but here’s the good news: Smokers can break free, with proven interventions like counselling, peer and family education, and medications like nicotine gum, patches and other drug therapies. Quit smoking hotlines can double your chances of success.
And yet, on tribal reservations, where many homes lack electricity and running water, calling a quit smoking helpline or attending a smoking cessation webinar aren’t always realistic options. for smokers.
But smoke-free casinos are possible and do not seem to deter players. And Native Americans seeking to quit smoking can benefit from the role of traditional healers and techniques such as mindfulness practices, which were facts of Native American life centuries before “mindfulness” became a household word. contemporary fashion. And, as Dr. Nez Henderson has often said, American Indians can decolonize tobacco in any setting.
Native Americans themselves can demystify the idea that commercial tobacco is somehow integral to Native culture. It’s not. Casinos are a good place to start, but it’s not over. We continue to fight to change the system to ensure health equity, and we need help with basic resources to make cessation possible as we continue the fight for decolonization. The sooner commercial addiction to tobacco begins to disappear from Indian Country, the better off we are as tribal nations.
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