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Smoking in Indian country is big business

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. - In the state of Oklahoma, highways are littered with smoke shops, discount tobacco outlets, open to the public. Many are tribally owned, others are regulated through licensing, by tribes, on trust lands, but are owned by individual tribal members.

In describing the sheer number of smoke shops throughout the state, one Oklahoman said, "You can hardly throw a rock without hitting one."

The shops have been a successful economic venture for many tribes, but now the Cherokee Nation wants to be a part of settlement talks between the federal government and the tobacco industry.

Although the Cherokee Nation and the state of Oklahoma both license and regulate the sale of tobacco, the nation and other tribes have been left out of the talks at this time. The Cherokee Nation wants to rectify that situation.

It wants a portion of the money that is to be distributed to the states. But, because the settlement is between the tobacco industry and states, tribes are being excluded from receiving any settlement money directly.

In a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft, Lloyd Benton Miller, an attorney for the tribe and other tribal health care providers wrote: "The United States has a legally binding trust responsibility to protect the interests of Native American Tribes. Although the United States in part purported to represent at least some of the tribes' claims in its original complaint against the tobacco companies, the class we represent eventually concluded that any such representation had become inadequate."

Following a suit by the Clinton administration, a settlement of historic proportions between the tobacco industry and the federal government means that tobacco companies will have to pay Oklahoma as well as other states more than $246 billion over the next 20 years, in addition to limiting certain marketing practices.

With so much riding financially on the sale of tobacco at smoke shops throughout Oklahoma, the question arises as to whether tribes plan to shut down their profitable business enterprises if they are awarded a part of the settlement.

Don Abney, principal chief of the Sac & Fox Nation in Oklahoma, said his tribe plans to continue business as usual when it comes to the smoke shops. Revenue gained from the shops helps fund the tribal government and programs for its members, he said.

Abney, who quit after smoking for more than 40 years, doesn't see tribes continuing to run smoke shops as a conflict of interest.

"The public needs to take a look at smoking. Do they need that smoke in their bodies? It is a personal decision," Abney said.

He added that the Sac & Fox and other tribes have banded in an organization trying to accomplish the same thing as the Cherokee Nation, getting in on the settlement talks with big tobacco. But, so far, nothing has come to pass for the group.

Even though the Sac & Fox Nation wants to be included in the talks, Abney has his own opinions on the whole idea of suing an entire industry for choices made by individuals. "It is just like drinking alcohol. Should they be held responsible for our own personal choices?"

Tobacco use among young members of the tribe is a concern to Abney. "I would love to lose the tax money we get (from the smoke shops) if we could just get the children to quit smoking."

Cherokee Principal Chief Chad Smith agrees money the nation receives from licensing smoke shops owned by tribal members doesn't present a conflict of interest for the tribe to pursue legal footing in the tobacco settlement talks. Smith said the tribe is not responsible for anything other than the licensing and regulatory policies of the smoke shops.

"We license individual people," Smith said. "Smoke shops are owned by tribal members on trust land. They were doing smoke shops 10 years ago without regulating, so we stepped in as a regulatory function."

Money from the licensing under Cherokee regulatory authority is used for health and education, Smith said. "The taxes we receive support health education."

He added that the goal of the health education program is to eventually minimize tobacco use among Cherokee tribal members.

Although the nation has not yet determined what it wants from the settlement talks, fighting has so far been an uphill battle. The Department of Justice supported a judge's decision to reject the nation's attempts to intervene in the lawsuit, said David Mullon Jr., associate general council for the nation.

It appears as long as the revenue generated from both the settlement from the tobacco industry and from taxes on the sale of tobacco products continues to be big business, tribal smoke shops and non-tribal smoke shops will remain open.

South Dakota and Minnesota, states which have already received their share of the settlement money, continue to tax tobacco products and no prohibition on cigarettes in either state appears close at hand.

Health education efforts in the form of anti-smoking billboards and pamphlets have done little to curb the public appetite for tobacco products and taxes cause financial hardship on those who can least afford it. Studies have shown that a majority of smokers are in lower income brackets. For them the tobacco settlement and the increase in revenue to the states via taxes on tobacco have done little more than take more money out of their pockets, while the regulatory agencies within states and tribes grow richer.

Little was said by tribes contacted about the message they send to their youth. "Learn your culture, get back to the old ways," one tribal member said in summation. "We will fund it by selling addictive substances, but we don't want you to use them."

It appears there is a trade off, but one no one in Indian country wants to bring it to public attention as long as the money keeps rolling in.