Tribal smoke shops pit health concerns against economic need
RAPID CITY. S.D. – Smokers will have to pay more to light up when President Barack Obama’s first new tax increase goes into effect April 1.
The bill Obama signed Feb. 4 will add a federal tax of 62 cents to every pack of cigarettes sold around the country, including those sold on Indian reservations.
That’s good news to Dr. Patricia Henderson.
Henderson, a member of the Navajo Nation, and vice president of the nonprofit Black Hills Center for American Indian Health in Rapid City, said increasing taxes on cigarettes will significantly benefit the health of American Indians by encouraging many smokers to quit or reduce the number of cigarettes they smoke, and by preventing many young people from starting to smoke.
But taxing cigarettes is anathema to some tribal nations, such as those in New York state where a long-running tobacco tax war has pitted state officials against reservation smoke shops that often generate the main revenue stream for tribal governments to provide services to their members.
Studies show that American Indians smoke at higher rates than other populations. Tobacco’s link to cancer and heart disease is unarguable. The most recent research, published in February, also links secondhand smoke to an increased risk of developing dementia. And the risks to young people are tremendous. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Nearly 90 percent of smokers begin at or before the age of 18.
Smoking among youth can hamper the rate of lung growth, the level of maximum lung function and brain function.
The resting heart rates of young adult smokers are two to three beats per minute faster than those of nonsmokers.
Among young people, regular smoking is responsible for cough and increased frequency and severity of respiratory illnesses.
Teens who smoke are three times more likely than nonsmokers to use alcohol, eight times more likely to use marijuana, and 22 times more likely to use cocaine. Smoking is associated with a host of other risky behaviors, such as fighting and engaging in unprotected sex.
“The tobacco industry has done a great job in promoting this deadly substance in our Indian communities,” Henderson said, and she looks to tribal leaders to help solve the problem.
“I always say, with sovereignty comes responsibility, in this case the responsibility for the health of our people. If we’re really serious about bringing up the seventh generation to be lawyers and doctors and teachers and educated people that are so grounded in their lives and principles of who they are as Native people, we have to start somewhere. Tribal leaders have an opportunity to make a difference in the health of our people.”
She said sovereign Indian nations have the right to impose taxes on the cigarettes they sell and can even set taxes higher than the state’s.
“When states increase their taxation on tobacco products they should try to work hand in hand with the Indian reservations so that the Indian communities also increase their taxes.”
That’s the way it works in Arizona where the Navajo Nation partners with the state to collect tobacco taxes, some of which is returned to the tribe.
“If you increase taxation, Native communities can earmark those dollars to help health-related programs for their tribe,” Henderson said.
But in New York, Indian leaders say they will not collect state taxes on cigarettes sold to non-tribal members on their reservations. Tribal members are exempt from state taxation on products they buy on reservations, but leaders say they would not impose such taxes on them.
“We don’t want to impose any kind of taxation on our territory at all,” said Sally Snow, a Seneca Nation business woman and president of the Seneca Free Trade Association, an organization of more than 230 Seneca-licensed businesses. “That’s what we’ve stood for and that’s what our elders always told us, because once you put one form of taxation on, all other forms will follow. It’s something we’ve been taught.”
She said a Seneca regulation prohibiting retailers from selling cigarettes to people under the age of 18 is strictly enforced. “If we get caught, we lose our license.”
While she recognizes the negative health effects of smoking, Snow said adults have the right to choose whether they want to smoke, and parents are responsible for setting a nonsmoking model for kids.
“I quit smoking 30 years ago because my grandmother got breast cancer and I made a little pact with the Creator that if he let her live I’d stop,” Snow said.
Seneca tobacco retailers pay a fee of 75 cents per carton to the tribal government. The money is used for health, education and other services to members.
Snow points to the fact that indigenous communities traditionally traded tobacco.
“But traditionally our tobacco hasn’t had all these additives that Philip Morris adds to its cigarettes. There’s a push right now for us to start selling cigarettes made of tobacco without any additives.”
Snow draws a sharp line between the cigarettes she sells and the ceremonial tobacco the tribe uses.
“One of my sisters is a faith keeper in the longhouse and we use tobacco for ceremonial reasons and she grows the tobacco that’s used to send messages to the Creator. It’s totally separate. I wouldn’t sit down and smoke a cigarette and think I was sending a message to the Creator.”
For the Unkechaug Nation on Long Island, the sale of cigarettes provides the tribal government’s sole source of revenue – and also presents a paradox.
“We know this is a hazard. No one else will do it (provide medical services) for us and the only way we can do it is by entering into this necessary revenue stream,” said Chief Harry Wallace, an attorney and owner of one of the Poospatuck Reservation smoke shops.
The tribal government collects a per carton fee, which Wallace declined to reveal but said it’s “significantly more than the Seneca’s 75 cents a carton.” The tribe also prohibits sales to people under 19 years of age and imposes fines or rescinds licenses of retailers who break the rule.
Cigarette revenues also pay for education, which is the key to the tribe’s future, Wallace said.
“The only way to solve these problems is through decent education and decent employment, because you can’t worry about other stuff if you’re worried about feeding your children.”
But for Henderson, there is no giving in to the economic imperative the New York tribe’s experience.
“I guess for me, as a physician, I can’t compromise the health side. Tribal leaders need to begin to understand the basic mechanism of what commercial tobacco does to the human body and not just see it as an income generating commodity, but something that is harming their communities.
“It’s way out of balance with what the Creator has given us, which is natural and grows in our communities. But he didn’t give it to us so we can be smoking it every day.”