Native American customs have sometimes used natural tobacco in accordance with certain rituals or traditions. This tobacco differs greatly from commercially prepared tobacco, as it is much more addictive and harmful.
Native American peoples have used tobacco for thousands of years. In many cultures, tobacco is used for medicinal purposes, as it is believed to have healing and restorative qualities. For some, it holds a place of honor and is seen as a gift of value, often being presented to tribal elders and leaders. Because of its deeply held cultural significance, tobacco companies have long targeted Natives with their marketing campaigns by misusing and distorting their long-held traditions.
Native vs. Commercial Tobacco
Some may see no issue with Big Tobacco targeting native peoples specifically. After all, they’ve used tobacco products for thousands of years. However, the tobacco used by American Indians or Alaskan Natives and the tobacco offered by commercial companies is very different. Native tobacco contains no chemicals or additives, and it is not associated with the ill health effects of commercially prepared tobacco products. It is also less addictive, and is often used in ways other than recreational use. Tobacco companies are using sacred tradition in order to profit, and the physical implications for Native American smokers is detrimental.
According to the Colorado Quit Line, over 23% of Natives smoke, and 29% of Native American men smoke. This is more than any other American ethnic group. They also have the highest rates of teens and youth who smoke, with over 20% using tobacco products at any given time. Because Native Americans are not subject to national American tobacco restrictions, youths begin smoking at far younger ages than in other ethnic groups.
These higher smoking rates have led to a shocking increase in smoking related diseases. Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death among Natives, and cancer deaths are the third leading cause of death. Many of these deaths, if not most, could be prevented through smoking cessation.
Big Tobacco Marketing
Tobacco companies use targeted, and sometimes dishonest, marketing techniques to encourage Native American smokers. Many ads target young smokers, giving the impression that commercially produced tobacco products are approved by tribal elders for use in rituals and for other uses. Other techniques include lowering prices to attract younger smokers, as well as featuring Native Americans in ads and on product packaging.
Ways to Reduce Smoking Among Natives
Since Natives often perceive tobacco as being healing and even sacred, tobacco companies have been able to abuse their traditions in order to infiltrate tribal communities. The best way to combat this is to expose the truth of commercial tobacco products and the harm they do to human health. Some groups, such as ocaithb.org, propose that youth smoking prevention is the key to preventing future smokers. Young people are encouraged to be aware of targeted ad campaigns and to report them to tribal elders in order to stop this abuse of Native traditions.
Those who are not yet affected by tobacco related disease can still take action to quit and prevent harmful health outcomes. Quitting is possible, and those who have the desire can succeed. Using prescription medications and nicotine replacement products, along with having a good plan of action, are good starting points.