Navajo lawmakers are revisiting a smoking cigarettes ban on the reservation with a bill that would exempt tribal casinos at least until their financing debts are paid off.

The ban would apply to smoking cigarettes and chewing tobacco in all other public places across the 27,000-square-mile reservation but does not limit the use of tobacco in traditional ceremonies.

A committee made up of the 24 tribal lawmakers has endorsed the measure, but the formal vote will come during the Navajo Nation Council's summer session, which starts today in Window Rock. Another version of the bill not currently on the council's agenda does not allow tobacco use at any casino.

That's the one Navajo President Ben Shelly would support, not the one tailored to casino interests, his spokeswoman said.

"We are aiming to protect our people's health," said Charmaine Jackson. "And all Navajo Nation workers should be able to breathe clean air and work in an environment free of tobacco smoke."

The tribe's gaming czar, Robert Winter, sees the measure lawmakers have on their agenda as a good compromise to limit second-hand smoke cigarettes and address poverty on the reservation.

Winter said gaming officials have agreed to filter the air at casinos and designate most of the casino as smoke-free. Smoking would be allowed only at some slot machines, table games, and in outdoor areas and golf courses. No one would have to walk through a smoking cigarettes area to get in or out of the buildings.

The tribe's gambling enterprise expects to pay off its estimated $200 million debt for a handful of operating and planned casinos in about seven years, Winter said. At that point, the Tribal Council could decide whether to extend the smoking cigarettes ban to the gaming facilities, according to the bill.

"We're relying on council to look at this in a very balanced way," Winter said. "It's council who voted for and passed the statute to create the gaming enterprise. That requires us to maximize the gaming economy and do everything possible to hire Navajos. Poverty is a public health issue as well."

Delegates on the previous Tribal Council failed to override a presidential veto of a bill that would have banned smoking cigarettes and chewing tobacco on the reservation. Former Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. said at the time that he feared it would inhibit gambling revenue. The tribe operates two casinos in New Mexico and has broken ground on its largest casino east of Flagstaff that Winter said won't be built if a smoking cigarettes ban includes casinos.

The bill wouldn't prohibit commercial tobacco sales on the reservation that are taxed by the tribe.

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