Navajo president vetoes smoking ban

By Susan Montoya Bryan
Albuqueque, New Mexico (AP) 8-08

The leader of the Navajo Nation has vetoed a measure that would have banned smoking and chewing tobacco in public places, resulting in strong criticism from lawmakers and health advocates.

Tribal President Joe Shirley Jr. said he rejected the measure because he feared it would infringe on religious ceremonies and inhibit gambling revenue. He also said the measure didn’t focus enough on underage smoking.

Shirley said in his veto message Aug. 7 that the law “is unreasonably broad, unenforceable, provides no administrative appeal process, puts the nation at a competitive disadvantage and fails to address the real problem on the Navajo Nation of underage smoking.”

Tribal lawmakers approved the ban during their session during July in the Navajo capital of Window Rock, Ariz. Shirley had 10 days to consider the measure.

The ban would have prohibited smoking and chewing tobacco in public buildings and shared public air space, but it would not have affected tobacco used in ceremonies for traditional or religious purposes on the reservation, which encompasses parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Supporters, including the American Cancer Society, said they hope to work with tribal lawmakers to override Shirley’s veto.

Shirley argued that the law was ambiguous about the type of tobacco that would be allowed for use in bona fide religious ceremonies, leaving the practitioners and those attending the ceremony liable.

The president also said the ban would put planned Navajo casinos at a disadvantage that could result in lost revenues and fewer jobs in the tribe’s new gaming initiative. Other tribal casinos in New Mexico allow smoking.

“The revenue-generating potential is huge and we simply cannot afford to risk this potential with well-intended legislation that will put the Nation at a competitive disadvantage,” Shirley said. 


The president said he would work with the legislation’s sponsors to develop a law that addresses the problem of underage smoking while not infringing upon religious ceremonies or affecting the tribe’s casino revenues.

Thomas Walker Jr., the legislation’s sponsor and a member of the Navajo Health and Social Services committee, said dozens of community-based organizations, medical professionals and spiritual leaders had thrown their support behind the ban.

“We had hoped the president would sign the bill into law,” Walker said Thursday. “In previous years and more recent, the president’s activities and words in public seemed to indicate that he would be in favor of such a measure.”

Walker pointed out that about two years ago, Shirley issued his own tobacco-free proclamation and has endorsed anti-tobacco educational efforts across the reservation.

Walker acknowledged the gaming industry’s influence and said casino officials had joined the debate in the 11th hour. However, he said the bill’s supporters would continue to advocate for tobacco prevention measures and awareness.

“So this isn’t the last day for this kind of measure,” he said.

Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson, one of those who testified for the measure, said the measure would have decreased the number of young tribal members starting to smoke, helped those who want to quit and protected others from secondhand smoke.

“I’m very disappointed that the president of the Navajo Nation has vetoed this landmark legislation,” she said. “He, of course, knows that it is all about the health of the Navajo people but he’s basically putting money before health.”

Henderson said if nothing is done about tobacco related issues, the tribe could see negative impacts such as higher rates of lung and other cancers in the decades to come.