Aboriginal smoking: a serious health problem
From a history of being paid with tobacco, smoking rates in Aboriginal communities range anywhere between over 40% to up to 80%, posing a serious health threat.
Many Aboriginal mothers smoke during pregnancy.
Although it takes your body up to 15 years to fully recover from smoking, Aboriginal people are less likely to quit.
- Percentage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders aged 15 years and over who smoked in 2008. Same figure for 2002: 49% . About 20% of all Australians smoke.
- Rate of Aboriginal adults smoking in 2009 in NSW (all Australians: 17.2%). Same figure for 2005: 43.2% (18.4%) 
- Times Aboriginal people are more likely to smoke tobacco than non-Aboriginal people .
- Percentage of Indigenous adults who smoke cigarettes, which can be as high as 70% in some northern communities .
- Percentage of Aboriginal adult deaths in the Northern Territory linked to smoking. Same figure for hospital admissions: 3% .
- Number of cigarettes an Aboriginal person smokes each week. Same number for a non-Aboriginal person: 101 .
- Proportion of sickness and bad health caused by smoking .
- Times smoking-related cancer is more prevalent in Aboriginal communities than the rest of the population .
- Proportion of smokers in some Aboriginal communities who are unaware of quit aids .
- Proportion of Aboriginal prisoners who smoke .
Next death through smoking in
Aboriginal smoking rates can be over 70% in some remote communities. In the early days after invasion Aboriginal people were paid with tobacco.
Smoking rates in all of Australia continue to decline. According to Maari Ma Health Aboriginal Corporation , over 17% of New South Wales’ population were current smokers in 2008, while Aboriginal people continue to smoke much more with rates between 43% and 54% [1,3] and in some communities up to 80% .
Indigenous people begin smoking at a younger age and are less likely to successfully quit smoking than non-Indigenous people .
Many health workers, before heading off to see Aboriginal people, stand around their four-wheel-drives “having a puff” .
Tobacco isn't always perceived by community members to be a high priority when they are dealing with a wide range of health issues--it is the silent killer.—Jan Robertson, researcher, James Cook University 
Smoking is the number one cause of chronic conditions and diseases among Aboriginal people  and causes 20% of deaths in Aboriginal communities . More Aboriginal people will die from tobacco-related illness than from alcohol, petrol sniffing, domestic violence and car accidents put together .
East Arnhem Land, in Australia’s Northern Territory, has the highest per capita rate of lung cancer in Australia  which prompted the local Aboriginal health service to start Yaka Narali, an action plan which translates to ‘no smoking’ in Yolngu language. Between 75 and 85% of people smoke in that area .
Smoking can sometimes be traced back to contact of Aboriginal communities with outside cultures which made it become a “normal part” of their culture. Song lines and dances exist in Arnhem Land about smoking with the Maccassans long before white settlement . During white settlement many Aboriginal people were ‘paid’ in tobacco, further entrenching the habit into their culture.
Half of Aboriginal pregnant women smoke
This high smoking rate is one of the reasons why Aboriginal infants are six times more likely to suffer a sudden unexpected death than non-Aboriginal children . 50% of Aboriginal mothers smoked during pregnancy, a rate that’s relatively steady between 2001 and 2009. Only 14% of non-Indigenous mothers smoked in 2009 .
Some young mothers smoke because there are fewer and fewer Aboriginal elders offering help and advice, due to a shortened life expectancy . “[This] eliminates the sense of belonging, ancestry and identity for many young Indigenous peoples which contributes to the rising rate of teenage pregnancy amongst the Indigenous community,” explains Caroline Djajadikarta, a Sydney University medical student . Many of the young mums were having to cope with depression and anxiety, and uses smoking as a means of managing adversity.
When pregnant women smoke, they inhale carbon monoxide, which reduces the amount of oxygen their baby receives and in turn causes a trail of health problems even before it is born.
Female smokers put themselves at risk of developing lung cancer but also cancer of the cervix because viruses present in the cervix are no longer cleared by the body. Regular pap tests are essential to protect against developing cervical cancer.
Their unborn children have an increased risk of a heart attack or stroke when they grow up and face a 10 to 15% higher risk of developing coronary disease as adults .
Why Aboriginal people smoke
There are so many Aboriginal smokers because
- Not informed: Aboriginal people don’t identify tobacco smoking as a health issue.
- Anti-smoking campaigns fail to reach Aboriginal people because such campaigns need to be developed at ‘ground level’ for Aboriginal people and by Aboriginal people themselves [5,10]. Many Aboriginal people don’t watch TV ads or cannot read magazine ads .
- Tobacco payments: Aboriginal people used to get paid in tobacco during their work on white stations.
- It is hard for children to avoid passive smoking in overcrowded houses.
If we could reduce tobacco consumption levels in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community to what it is in the general population we could increase life expectancy by between 4 and 5 years.—Warren Snowdon, Indigenous Health Minister 
If you quit smoking today…
Smoking subjects the body to severe changes which take a long time to neutralise. If you stopped smoking today [1,14],
- blood circulation to hands and feet would improve,
- in 8 hours excess carbon monoxide is out of your blood,
- in 5 days most nicotine has left your body,
- in 1 week your sense of taste and smell improves,
- in 2 months your blood pressure would return to normal,
- in 3 months your lung function increases by 30% and regains the ability to clean itself,
- in 9 months your risk of pregnancy complications is that of a non-smoker,
- in 1 year your risk of dying from coronary heart disease halves and you saved between $5,000 and $4,000,
- in 5 years your risk of mouth or throat cancer has halved, and your risk of a stroke decreased dramatically,
- after 15 years your risk of coronary heart disease and stroke would be almost back to that of a non-smoker,
“I thought I’d never pull this off”—A quitter’s story
Positive role models within Aboriginal communities can significantly contribute towards Aboriginal people quit smoking. Carol Martin, Aboriginal woman, West Australian Labor MP and a smoker for 39 years, quit smoking in 2009.
“I have to say I thought I’d never pull this off because the only time I didn’t smoke was when I was pregnant and had little breast-feeding babies, but once they were off the boob I was back on the fags,” reveals Carol .
“I had a bit of a sore throat when I gave up and I remember getting desperate to go and get a smoke but I resisted and I’m glad I did.”
“I’ve got diabetes and hypertension, so my smoking was actually masking my illnesses. So giving up made me realise I had to get a handle on my health,” Carol says.
The best part about giving up smoking, according to Carol, was the money she has saved in the half year following her abstinence.
“I’ve saved more than A$2,000 since I gave up because I would keep giving them out to my mates. But since I gave up, I notice I haven’t got so many mates around anymore, but that’s just a laugh.”
“So giving up will allow me, as a mother and grandmother, to take my place in the community and have a major impact on their future and push them to be the best that they can. I enjoyed smoking, but I enjoy not smoking even more.”
Giving up [smoking] will allow me, as a mother and grandmother, to take my place in the community and have a major impact on their future.—Carol Martin, West Australian Labor MP 
Advertisement promoting to quit smoking. Initiated by the Aboriginal Tobacco Control Project the ad relates to Aboriginal people through colours and Aboriginal faces .
To raise Aboriginal people’s life expectancy it is very important to get them to give up smoking.
Get help quitting
SmokeCheck is a program designed specifically for Aboriginal people. Health workers use culturally specific resources to support clients quitting and offers future check-ups.
For more information visit SmokeCheck.
Aboriginal Tobacco Control Project
The project aims to reduce smoking in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and provides information for smokers wanting to quit, and inspirational stories from those who have.
Read tips and stories on I Quit Because.
Blow Away the Smokes
Blow Away the Smokes is a 30-minute film addressing Aboriginal people and offering practical help for quitting. It features local scenes and Aboriginal community members.
“Blow Away the Smokes Day” has been created in 2012 and is celebrated on March 12 each year.
Find out how you can Blow Away the Smokes.
Last updated: 2 April 2013 | Out of respect for Aboriginal culture I use Indigenous sources as much as possible.
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