An Indian tribe gasping for jobs has turned a health club into a cigarette factory.
In a building that once featured basketball courts and treadmills, the Omaha Nation Tobacco Co. produces about 50,000 cartons of cigarettes a month. It is the only tribally owned cigarette plant in the country.
Omaha brand cigarettes with an Indian head on the package are machine-rolled from North Carolina tobacco and sold in regular, light, ultralight and menthol varieties by 27 tribes across the country and at some off-reservation stores.
The plant’s machines keep 18 working people full time at wages starting at $6.50 an hour.
Gary Lasley, chairman of the Omaha Tribe, said the plant is all about jobs on the 3,000-person reservation 75 miles north of Omaha. Unemployment on the reservation stands at 60 percent.
The tribe long has had trouble building an economic base. Like other tribes across the country, the Omahas saw potential in gambling, and they built a casino in Iowa across the Missouri River. But revenue fell with the rise of riverboat gambling in Iowa.
“We are proud that we are trying to control our own economic destiny,” said plant manager Jerry Montour, a Mohawk from Canada who was brought to Macy because his tribe put together a similar factory two years ago.
The Omahas’ plant has operated since September and has yet to turn a profit. But the tribe hopes to win a small part of the business held by the huge tobacco companies. It believes that the industry’s billion-dollar settlements could drive up the big companies’ prices.
“What is going to happen when those cigarettes go sky high?” Lasley asked. “They’re going to look at these generic brands.”
Some members are troubled by the idea of manufacturing cigarettes.
“It makes revenue, I know, and that is good,” said Luther Thomas, coordinator of the tribe’s health club, which was moved to a new location. “But smoking is bad. For us here, trying to promote a healthy lifestyle, it is a contradiction.”
Montour and Lasley said that the tribe does not encourage underage smoking and noted that tobacco is used in the Omahas’ religious rites.
“We’re the ones who introduced it to the guys who came over on the boat,” Lasley said.
Plant worker Rita Reynolds, a smoker herself, said she feels good about helping her people start a business. “People are going to smoke anyway,” she said.
The cigarettes sell for 80 cents a pack on the reservation and the neighboring Winnebago reservation.
The tribe does not have to pay the state’s 34-cent cigarette tax on smokes sold on Indian land.