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Mohegan will fight casino smoking ban

HARTFORD, Conn. – The legislative session is new, but a proposed bill to ban smoking at the state’s two Indian casinos is déjà vu all over again.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal announced Feb. 9 that he has proposed legislation calling for a total ban on smoking in all areas of Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino.

A similar proposal during last year’s legislative session died a day before the session ended when the Democratic majority House of Representatives decided not to bring the bill up for a vote.

Casino employees and anti-smoking advocates joined Blumenthal at a press conference at his Hartford office where he announced his legislation.

“Our common goal is a complete ban on smoking because casinos shouldn’t be gambling with public health. … The casinos must be smoke free – no ifs, ands or butts. The casinos are dealing workers and visitors a losing hand on cancer and tobacco addiction,” Blumenthal said later in a press release rife with gaming puns.

The attorney general’s proposal would impose an incremental ban on smoking leading to a total ban in all areas of the casinos by October 2011. The three-step plan would require all non-gaming areas and 20 percent of gaming areas to be smoke-free by this October; increasing to 50 percent a year later, and 100 percent in 2011.

Mohegan Tribe Chairman Bruce “Two Dogs” Bozsum said he was “saddened” to read Blumenthal’s press release. “Unfortunately, although the attorney general for the state of Connecticut believes that sovereignty must yield to his will that is not something that I or the rest of the leaders in Indian country will stand for.”

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Blumenthal is well known in Indian country for his successful leadership in the campaign to overturn the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation’s federal acknowledgement and for guiding other states to intervene in lawsuits that potentially erode tribal sovereignty. Two such lawsuits are the famous San Manuel Band of Mission Indians lawsuit regarding federal labor laws on reservations, and Carcieri v. Kempthorne, in which the state of Rhode Island has challenged the interior secretary’s authority to take land into trust or to federally acknowledge tribes that were not federally listed during the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act era, stemming from the federal government’s decision to take 31 acres of land into trust for the Narragansetts.

“Tribal sovereignty deserves respect,” Blumenthal said in a release, “but it must yield to health or safety as a priority.”

If the legislation passes, “We go to court,” Bozsum said. “It would be like Connecticut passing a law that says in Massachusetts supermarkets have to close at 10 o’clock. You can pass any law you want, but you can’t tell anyone outside of your jurisdiction what they can and can’t do. We would take it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Blumenthal said the smoking ban “must be total, even if the battle is tough. Short-term fixes and gimmicks like ventilation systems and segregated smoking areas simply prolong the problem. Secondhand smoke cannot be made safe. There’s no safe way to smoke.”

Both the Mohegan Tribe and the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, which owns Foxwoods and MGM Grand at Foxwoods, have installed state-of-the-art ventilation systems in the smoking areas of the casinos, while smoking is banned in other parts of the facilities.

At a meeting a month ago with the Mohegan tribal council, Blumenthal praised Mohegan’s efforts to minimize the effects of secondhand smoke.

“The attorney general said 31 days ago the tribe should be commended,” Mohegan Chief of Staff Chuck Bunnell said.

Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation issued a prepared statement. “The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation continues in its discussion with the governor’s office regarding various matters of shared concern. We are confident that together we can progress more effectively through a cooperative government-to-government relationship and at the same time respecting tribal sovereignty as opposed to an attempt to impose state standards.”