Working Toward A Smoke-Free Future for Oklahoma’s Tribal Casinos

By Aaron Williams, Tobacco Program Coordinator, Southern Plains Tribal Health Board 

Earlier this month, the Southern Plains Tribal Health Board and a coalition of organizations – including TSET’s Oklahoma Tobacco Helpline – gathered for a first-of-its-kind event: a webinar promoting smoke-free policies for Oklahoma’s Tribal Casinos. The presentations focused on the health benefits of smoke-free policies for customers and employees, the financial benefits of implementing the policies, and provided instructions for advocating for policy change. More than 90 people attended the webinar.

Meeting the Moment

SPTHB and other Tribal health organizations are committed to protecting the health of those we represent. More than 1 in 4 Native American adults smoke cigarettes. That’s 50% higher than the U.S. smoking rate. Out of the 10 leading causes of death for Native Americans, 6 of them have been linked to smoking. With many Tribal casinos opening smoke-free in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, this moment presents a opportunity to explore making these temporary policy changes lasting. We are excited for this possibility.

Traditional vs. Big Tobacco

Chris Tall Bear, Good Health and Wellness in Indian Country Program Coordinator at SPTHB, shared an important reminder about the distinction between traditional tobacco use among Tribal Nations and corporate Big Tobacco. He illustrated his point with a personal story about his father, who recently passed from COVID-19 and enjoyed going to his local casino.

Health Benefits of Going Smoke-Free

Charlie Gagen, Director of Advocacy at the American Lung Association, addressed the health benefits associated with going smoke-free and vape-free. The ALA advocates 100% smoke-free and vape-free policies at casinos. He shared that cigarette smoking and secondhand smoke cost $92 billion each year in healthcare and other indirect expenses. Gagen also dismissed false rumors that air purification systems/ventilators are enough to create clean air and that e-cigarette aerosol is harmless.

He conveyed the added urgency of strengthening tobacco control during the COVID-19 pandemic as secondhand smoke contains droplets that could spread the virus. The lungs are the first organ affected by the virus, and people who smoke, especially those who suffer from COPD, are at an increased likelihood of severe illness if infected. These policies should remain in effect after the pandemic crisis has passed.

Proven Financial Benefits

Missy Tracy, Municipal Relations Coordinator at Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison, reported her Wisconsin Tribal casinos saw financial benefits after going smoke-free. In 2014, Ho-Chunk Gaming began noticing a trend of customers requesting smoke-free policies. That inspired a more extensive survey which found that 70% of guests preferred a smoke-free environment. In 2015, Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison went entirely smoke-free and built a smoking hut outside the casino. The standalone smoking hut prevented smoke from permeating the main structure. They also offered tobacco cessation services to their employees to help those who wished to quit smoking.

The first three months were transitional and resulted in a loss, but after 15 months, Ho-Chunk Gaming was running significantly ahead of the previous 15 months. The casino realized savings in expected and unexpected ways. Lower health insurance premiums and decreased environmental service fees (no more ashtrays to empty) were planned, but they were surprised to see additional savings in fewer employee sick days. They would later expand their policy to prohibit vaping in November 2019. Tracy said that they are happy with their decision to stay smoke-free, especially with the pandemic and that it was essential to provide a clean, healthy, safe environment for guests and staff.

Advocating for Change

The final speaker was Clinton Isham, Consultant for American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. Isham acknowledged the Tribal casinos in Oklahoma that have opted to go smoke-free during the pandemic and shared action steps to advocate for continued smoke-free policies.

He shared his experiences working with Tribal casinos in other states to create educational content about the new policy and the associated health benefits. Isham learned that it is crucial to focus on communicating this message respectfully, with sovereignty and history in mind. Knowing your community is essential to crafting the right message regarding commercial tobacco control.

Josh Hudson, program manager at National Native Network, served as timekeeper, webinar moderator and facilitated questions from attendees.

The webinar was a great success and brought together the necessary parties to start the conversation about a smoke-free future for Tribal casinos located in Oklahoma. We will continue to work toward getting commercial tobacco-free policies on behalf of the health of casino patrons and casino workers.

Published by Tobacco Stops With Me on October 27, 2020