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Published January 09, 2014, 09:26 AM

Tribal leaders mull smoke-free N.D. casinos, but don’t bet on it

BISMARCK – Tribal leaders are considering a proposal to ban smoking in North Dakota’s Indian casinos, but one tribal chairman said the odds of it happening are slim.

By: Mike Nowatzki, Forum News Service

BISMARCK – Tribal leaders are considering a proposal to ban smoking in North Dakota’s Indian casinos, but one tribal chairman said the odds of it happening are slim.

Pushing the idea is the Intertribal Tobacco Use Coalition, comprised of tribal tobacco prevention staff from each of the state’s reservations, plus community members and other stakeholders, including the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission.

The state Department of Health is partnering with the tribal coalition in the effort.

The project is in the planning phase and new policies could be implemented within the next year or two, Krista Fremming, the department’s program director for tobacco prevention and control, told the Legislature’s interim Health Services Committee on Wednesday.

North Dakota voters approved a statewide measure banning smoking in indoor workplaces by a 2-to-1 margin in November 2012, but the law doesn’t apply to reservations.

Still, some tribes have voluntarily put smoke-free policies in place in their casinos.

On the Fort Berthold Reservation in western North Dakota, 4 Bears Casino allows smoking in a designated area but not on the main gambling floor.

The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa operates a smoke-free “mini-casino” in downtown Belcourt, though Tribal Chairman Richard McCloud said it generates only enough revenue to pay for staff. The tribe’s Sky Dancer Casino allows smoking, but it recently opened a smoke-free lounge and events center, McCloud said.

“We’re starting to take these baby steps, and by next year, hopefully it’s one small step will lead to one giant step,” McCloud told the committee.

The smoke-free progress at the Turtle Mountain Reservation is “huge for us,” said Scott Davis, executive director of the Indian Affairs Commission.

“But I think the overall arching goal is to have a smoke-free environment,” he said.

McCloud said he met last week with leaders of the Three Affiliated Tribes, Standing Rock Sioux and Spirit Lake Sioux and asked them to consider banning smoking in their casinos, a decision that ultimately rests with their respective tribal councils.

Tribal officials worry banning smoking in one casino will drive patrons to another casino, he said.

“All the casinos have to all go in,” he told the committee. “If one does it, it won’t work.”

When asked outside the meeting room about the likelihood of leaders agreeing to ban smoking in the casinos, McCloud smiled sheepishly and said, “It ain’t gonna happen.” It’s more likely the casinos will create designated smoking and non-smoking areas, he said.

Fremming said the health department discourages that approach because of the difficulty in keeping secondhand smoke out of nonsmoking areas.

The Indian Affairs Commission is taking the lead in developing a strategic plan to identify the best strategy for tackling tobacco use on reservations, Davis said. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31.5 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native adults were smokers in 2011, compared to 19 percent of the U.S. population as a whole.

The smoke-free casino project will include a “community readiness” survey – tentatively planned for this coming spring – to gauge tribal members’ perceptions of tobacco use and identify areas where more education is needed, Fremming said.

The state has been spending more on tribal tobacco programs since 2009, when the funding responsibility shifted from the Health Department to the Center for Tobacco Prevention and Control Policy, funded through the state’s share of the master tobacco settlement agreement.

Funding to each tribe increased from $10,000 annually to $60,000 to $80,000 annually, enabling each tribal tobacco program to fill a full-time position, Fremming said.

The center’s chairwoman, Dr. Beth Hughes, updated the committee Wednesday on the center’s recommendations for future tobacco prevention and control activities, which focus heavily on CDC-approved models.

Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, the committee’s chairwoman, said the recommendations sounded “militant” in their insistence on CDC models and that the center is viewed as “kind of heavy-handed” in dealing with other entities.

“I’m not feeling like there’s any collaborative spirit,” she said.

Hughes said the center has a responsibility to North Dakotans to promote evidence-based programs with proven outcomes, and she gave examples of ways the center has collaborated with other agencies.

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