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Council passes ‘historic’ smoke-free bill

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On Tuesday, the Navajo Nation Council passed the Niłch’ éí Bee Ííńá – “Air is Life” – Act of 2021, a 100% percent commercial tobacco smoke-free policy for the Nation with no exceptions, including casinos, by a vote of 20-3.

The bill prohibits the use of commercial tobacco products in enclosed, indoor workplaces or public places, and within 25 feet of any indoor area across the Navajo Nation, protecting employees and visitors alike across Navajo.

“This is an historic moment for the Navajo Nation,” said physician Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson, a longtime health advocate and leader of the Air is Life Coalition.

“Our Navajo legislators have passed a health policy that will not only protect our communities from the dangers of commercial tobacco products and secondhand smoke,” she said, “but also have decided the future that will save lives.”

Nez Henderson is also vice president of the Black Hills Center for American Indian Health and continues to share her concern for the lives of Navajo youth who are smoking in higher numbers today.

“For far too long, the tobacco industry has interfered with our sovereign decision making for a healthier Navajo Nation and pushed products that have caused addiction all for the sake of profit over people,” said Nez Henderson. “This is true sovereignty for the Dineh people by saying no to the tobacco industry.”

Delegate Carl Slater, vice chairman of the Health, Education and Human Services Committee, said, “Now more than ever, we need to protect the quality of our sacred, life-giving force, our air.

“This legislation is more important than profit,” said Slater. “It is about protecting the lives of our casino workers, our tribal employees, and our loved ones from the harm of smoking commercial tobacco.”

The Air is Life Coalition has been working for over a decade to educate the public and policymakers on the dangers of secondhand smoke and to organize communities behind a comprehensive smoke-free bill for Navajo.

“This legislation has been 13 years in the making with several draft legislations put forward over the years,” said Nez Henderson.

“With support from many Navajo people, chapter house agencies, grassroots organizations, health agencies, and other organizations like Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights and Arizonans Concerned About Smoking,” she said, “the Air is Life Coalition was successful in educating elected leaders and decision makers about the importance this legislation…”

HEHSC Chairman Daniel Tso said the tireless lobbying efforts by the Air is Life Coalition are to be commended.

“The perseverance of Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson and her team deserves recognition,” said Tso. “I am honored to have been asked to sponsor this historic legislation. The Council has spoken that the health of the Navajo people is valuable and not to be gambled with.”

Upon certification by Speaker Seth Damon, President Jonathan Nez has 10 days to either veto or approve the resolution. It is anticipated that he will sign the bill at which point the smoke-free law will immediately go into effect.

“Niłch’ éí Bee Ííńá represents the oxygen we breathe to live and exist everyday,” said Delegate Nathaniel Brown. “We need to protect our people at all costs… We all know the health risks from commercial tobacco, including deadly cancers. Life is sacred and this legislation sends that message.”


About The Author

Rima Krisst

Reporter and photojournalist Rima Krisst has been with the Navajo Times since July of 2018, and covers our Arts and Culture and Government Affairs beats. Prior to joining the editorial team at the Times, Krisst worked in various capacities in the areas of communications, public relations, marketing and Indian Affairs policy on behalf of the Tribes, Nations and Pueblos of New Mexico. Among her posts, she served as Director of PR and Communications for the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department under Governor Bill Richardson, Healthcare Outreach and Education Manager for the Eight Northern Pueblos, Tribal Tourism Liaison for the City of Santa Fe, and Marketing Projects Coordinator for Santa Fe Indian Market. As a writer and photographer, she has also worked independently as a contractor on many special projects, and her work has been published in magazines. Krisst earned her B.S. in Business Administration/Finance from the University of Connecticut.

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