Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights has recognized SouthWind Casino Kaw City in Oklahoma for going smokefree. The honor extends to the Kaw Nation and Kaw Enterprise Authority for their leadership in supporting this smoke-free property.
While this is something to celebrate, it's hard to escape the fact that of the more than 120 tribal casinos in Oklahoma, SouthWind Casino Kaw City is the only one that's completely smokefree.
The health risks of this sad reality were made evident in a groundbreaking study published in the scientific journal Circulation, which found that when Colorado made its casinos smokefree in 2008, ambulance calls originating from casinos dropped by nearly 20 percent. This makes a compelling case for clearing the air in the rest of Oklahoma's smoke-filled casinos — and everywhere else workers are exposed to on-the-job secondhand smoke.
The issue is pressing because nearly 90 percent of casino workers nationwide, including those who work at tribal casinos in Oklahoma, are exposed to secondhand smoke in their workplaces. It's encouraging that some tribes across the U.S. have voluntarily made some of their casinos smokefree and that 20 states include state-regulated commercial casinos in smoke-free workplace laws. This study should serve as a wake-up call to Oklahoma's tribal leaders and casino managers to adopt smoke-free protections that will benefit their workers and customers.
The cost savings alone are considerable. According to the Government Accountability Office, ambulance costs in 2010 ranged from $224 to $2,204 per transport nationwide. If Oklahoma's smoke-filled casinos followed Colorado's lead, the case for making all casinos smokefree would become abundantly clear in sheer economic terms.
But as always with tobacco and smoking, the real issue is protecting human health, not just dollars saved. The results of this study are similar to the findings of more than 50 previous studies that discovered a roughly 20 percent reduction in cardiac-related and other health-related hospital admissions (including heart attack and stroke) following the implementation of smoke-free laws. Additional scientific research has demonstrated that exposure to secondhand smoke for as little as 30 minutes causes immediate effects on blood and blood vessels that raise the risk of an immediate heart attack.
What's more alarming is the fact that an estimated 53,800 nonsmoking Americans — including 700 Oklahomans — die every year from secondhand smoke exposure. Despite this, Oklahoma's casinos continue to permit smoking, which forces casino workers to make a choice between a paycheck and their health.
Clearly, tribal leaders are concerned about the health and safety of their people. They use revenues from their casinos to provide critical infrastructure and human services such as health care. But preventing diseases and disabilities caused by commercial tobacco secondhand smoke exposure and preserving tribal health should also be a priority. While we commend the efforts of several tribes who have smoke-free areas in their casinos, there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke.
Oklahoma's tribal casinos should follow SouthWind Casino Kaw City's leadership and make their workplaces safe and smokefree.
Hallett is executive director of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights.