Tribes Face Cigarette Quandary Profits Good, But Habit Spreads

Nowhere is the national debate over smoking more complicated than on Indian reservations.

Or more urgent.

Smoking rates are higher among Native Americans than any other ethnic group. Cancer and heart disease are on the rise. Indians start smoking earlier than other Americans.

On Washington’s Colville reservation, children are barely putting down their crayons before picking up cigarettes.

“They’re starting in fifth and six grade,” says tribal health educator Nancy Johnson.

But tribes are not clamoring for one big source of money for tobacco prevention programs: the proposed nationwide settlement with tobacco companies. Tribes would get a share of settlement money if they agreed to curb cigarette sales and smoking among minors.

“How do they deal with the fact that they’ve had a little economic engine running there with tobacco sales, and the very intent of this legislation is to eliminate tobacco sales?” asks Dr. Craig Vanderwagen, director of preventive services for the Indian Health Service.

Tribes across the country bring in millions of dollars by taxing tobacco, licensing dealers or selling tobacco products directly.

Smoke shops and cigarette barns provide much-needed jobs.

“One of the ways and means this tribe had to stay in the economic loop was the sale of tobacco,” says Leroy Seth, patient advocate at the Nez Perce tribal health clinic in Lapwai, Idaho.

“We knew non-Indians would buy them up by the box and packs. Unfortunately, that makes it more available for tribal members.”

Seth hopes the success of his tribe’s new casino will make the Nez Perce more willing and able to live without cigarette profits.

Health advocates would like tribes to at least put some of their cigarette profits into anti-smoking programs. Only a couple of Arizona tribes have done so, says Don Reese. Until recently, he was tobacco prevention coordinator for the Indian Health Service.

Reese was frustrated by the lack of response from tribes, but found it understandable in some cases.

“It’s pretty hard to bring tobacco to the forefront of a tribal council when they have problems with heating, food, immunizations, an outbreak of TB.”

No one has approached Coeur d’Alene tribal leaders to ask that the tribe’s tobacco tax be diverted to health programs.

The tribe does spend some of its gaming profits to help compulsive gamblers.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribal Bingo Casino is the only tribal building where smoking is allowed.

Managers know that cigarettes and gambling go hand-in-hand for many customers. The 4-year-old casino is a big success, bringing in $4 million last year.

That’s a lot more than the $250,000 raised from the 35-cent per carton tribal cigarette tax.

But the tobacco money remains important, tribal chairman Ernie Stensgar says. It is divided among the tribal newspaper, the general operating fund and the tribal school.

Stensgar is an ex-smoker. Tribal administrator John Abraham quit for four years but says he fell back into the habit this year while going through divorce.

“My mom and a friend of hers were the first to sell cigarettes out of the tribal headquarters,” he recalls, adding that the women were raising money for tribal charity.

In 1966, George and Margaret Mahoney opened a smoke shop on tribal land near Plummer.

The couple refused to charge the Idaho sales tax because the tribe was a sovereign government.

“They threw two of us boys and my dad in jail,” recalls Pete Mahoney.

He continues in the business because the Idaho Supreme Court eventually agreed with his parents. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the state’s appeal.

Twice a week, Pete Mahoney works behind the counter of his bright, new Warpath Smoke Shop. He steps outside to light up.

Mahoney is a Marlboro man.

“I’m hooked,” he says. “I tried to quit three times. I was a nervous wreck.”

He adds: “I believe everybody should have a choice. You can choose not to smoke, or choose to smoke.”

Maybe his tribe should put part of the tobacco tax into health programs, Mahoney says.

He points out that the Coeur d’Alenes’ Wellness Clinic is going up right behind his shop. Its aim is to help people develop healthy lifestyles.

Indian lifestyles were inherently healthy for centuries, with native foods and constant exercise. Smoking was strictly ceremonial.

So why did Native Americans get so hooked on tobacco?

The same could be asked of high rates of alcohol abuse, and frequent deaths from drinking and driving, said Toni Martinez, manager of the American Indian Tobacco Education Network.

The answers could lie in the way so many Indians lost their land, their language and their lives to white invaders.

“A lot has been written about Native Americans recovering from the effects of genocide,” says Martinez, a member of California’s Chumash tribe. “Some go as far as to say that Indian people are basically recovering from a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome.”

The good news, says Dr. Vanderwagen, is that improved health care means Indians are now living long enough to die of lifestyle-related diseases.

Still, their average lifespans remain 13 to 16 years shorter than other Americans.

Kerri Lopez of the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board speaks optimistically about Indians and smoking.

During the early 1990s, Lopez helped regional tribes strengthen or establish indoor smoking policies. She became known as the “tobacco lady.”

“They hid their cigarettes from me,” says Lopez, who smoked for 20 years before giving up the habit.

At a recent health conference in Spokane, she compared alcohol and tobacco abuse.

Thirty years ago, she said, it was common for people to drink openly at Indian events.

“If you go to a powwow today, you don’t see people sitting there with their bottle of Jack Daniels,” Lopez says. “We decided we were going to change.”

New attitudes about smoking must come from within Indian country, she adds.

“If it doesn’t, it’s just a rule that somebody’s imposed and it’s not going to mean anything.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo; Graphic: Native American smokers

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