"In my heart, the tobacco, once it’s lit, the smoke is going to take my message to the Creator for whatever my vows are."
- Elder Genevieve Bruised Head
What Exactly Is Traditional Tobacco?
To many Indigenous people, the use of traditional tobacco is considered to be a sacred way of sending our thoughts, hopes and prayers up to the Creator as the smoke rises on the wind. Because tobacco is considered a gift from the Creator, it's incredibly important to be clear on the role traditional tobacco usage plays in many ceremonies and rituals. It's also incredibly important to differentiate it from commercial tobacco.
Traditional tobacco is not:
How is Traditional Tobacco Used?
Traditional Tobacco is offered up and ceremonially burned to establish a direct link with the spiritual world. Other uses include maskihkiy (medicine) or using tobacco as an offering to elders, and mother earth. By giving tobacco as a gift to an elder, you show your respect, gratitude and appreciation for their guidance in spiritual matters.
What Is Commercial Tobacco?
Commercial tobacco is a highly addictive substance, the smoke of which contains more than 7000 chemicals. Seventy of these chemicals are known carcinogens. Smoking commercial tobacco involves inhaling smoke that, in addition to containing these toxic additives, contains a high concentration of nicotine.
In addition to cigarettes, products like vape liquid and chewing tobacco also contain chemical additives to facilitate easier absorption of the substance.
Healthcare professionals have been aware for quite some time that commercial tobacco is harmful to humans, and most people are at least somewhat cognizant of the health damages involved in prolonged usage.
Is Commercial Tobacco Really That Bad?
Statistics show that each year, over 3000 Albertans die as a result of commercial tobacco usage. Even more Albertans suffer from tobacco-related illnesses such as cancer, COPD, emphysema, and worsened asthma, among several other spiraling health effects. What's more, with so many booked surgeries cancelled or on hold due to Alberta's surgeon and specialist backlog, the problem has gotten even worse.
Even people with a "good" prognosis for a tobacco-related illness may not recover if they have to wait years for treatment — these kinds of health issues don't simply go away because there's no one available to treat them.
The reality is that approximately half of all people who smoke commercial tobacco will die from a related illness. While growing awareness of the product's harmful effects has helped reduce this number to an extent, many Indigenous people recall all of their family members smoking cigarettes during their childhood. This exposure to commercial tobacco at such a formative age increases the chances that a person will also start smoking.
One also needs to consider why people used to go purchase cigarettes on the reserve. Who made that decision, and what were their motivations? Why were cigarettes cheaper there?
Part of the blame lies with the tobacco industry. Commercial tobacco has used various strategies to target the integration of tobacco into traditional Indigenous life. In addition to manipulative marketing, the tobacco industry sponsors events and makes corporate contributions to Indigenous communities, allowing it to control and maneuver tobacco use for its benefit.
The attractive and appealing flavors and availability of heavily discounted commercial tobacco on reservations has also further increased consumption. This increased access coupled with the efforts of commercial tobacco manufacturers has put the health of countless Indigenous people at risk.
Does Commercial Tobacco Usage Affect Only Adults?
Unfortunately, no. Even children as young as seven or eight may start smoking or using chewing tobacco, especially if they have easy access to it — such as through a parent who also consumes commercial tobacco products. And while the effects of vaping are not yet fully understood, we do know that there's considerable potential for lung damage.
Another problem compounding the harm commercial tobacco causes to Indigenous communities is that many Indigenous people either lack proper access to medical care or don't trust maskihkîwiyiniw (doctors) not to lie to them. This avoidance can significantly worsen a person's potential for recovery, as many of these illnesses can go from entirely treatable to "all we can do is make them comfortable" in the space of a few months or years.
We need to partner with Alberta Health Services and the provincial government to start seriously addressing these deep fears and trust issues. It should not be panic-inducing for a First Nations person to go to a doctor.
A helpful analogy to understand the harm that delayed healthcare treatments can cause is to compare this to the fear of the mîpit-maskihkîwiyiniw (dentist). Dentistry is something many people, irrespective of racial demographics, avoid for a number of reasons. Just like a cavity, a commercial tobacco related illness won't go away if you ignore it or procrastinate on treatment.
And just like a cavity, it's all too easy to say "just another week, I'll book an appointment then."
The Harmful Effects of Commercial Tobacco on Indigenous Communities
Smoke from commercial tobacco products isn't just harmful to the user. When you smoke or vape, you expose people in your vicinity to secondhand smoke or third-hand smoke. In children, this exposure can develop into health problems such as asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, severe coughs, colds, and ear infections.
Smoking during pregnancy is especially harmful to both expectant mothers and their children, increasing the risk of prenatal mortality, preterm birth, low birth weight, congenital abnormalities and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Consequently, infant death rates from such conditions are higher in First Nations families, especially those who use commercial tobacco inside their homes. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) — a serious lung disease frequently caused by smoking or exposure to smoke — is also twice as common amongst Indigenous people compared to the general Canadian population.
There are also increased rates of tobacco-related preventable premature mortality from conditions such as ischemic heart disease. People who smoke commercial tobacco are twice as likely to develop heart disease, ten times likelier to die from it and experience heart attacks and likelier to develop lung cancer. Commercial tobacco products have also been linked to diabetes, which is twice as prevalent amongst Indigenous people as it is amongst non-Indigenous individuals.
To add to the above, the prevalence for commercial tobacco use amongst First Nations peoples is roughly two to five times higher than in the non-Indigenous population.
These facts illustrate how crucial it is to meet Indigenous people on a culturally respectful level that both addresses the dangers of commercial tobacco and avoids demonizing traditional practices. Currently, there are simply too many factors at play that aren't being properly considered. Fear of government interference, fear of being lied to by doctors and other professionals, and a lower quality of education together do nothing to help bridge the gap.
Why Quitting Commercial Tobacco is So Difficult…
Quitting or cutting back on commercial tobacco usage is vital. The process is incredibly difficult for a number of reasons, including mental connections — going for a smoke when you're really angry, for example. While it isn't the act of smoking that does anything to help the person's anger, it feels relaxing because most people will go somewhere else to smoke, such as outside. This act of leaving a stressful situation to smoke and calm down helps us feel like we have control of whatever is distressing us.
The truth is that going outside to smoke a cigarette is technically the same thing as taking a minute outside to calm yourself down. Unfortunately, the mental connections to feeling calmer or less angry are often obscured by the addictive properties of the cigarette. This further fuels the association between the consumption of commercial tobacco and a feeling of calmness.
There's also peer pressure, which is especially prevalent amongst Indigenous youth. Combined with constant exposure or easy access to nicotine products, it's incredibly difficult to avoid smoking or commit to quitting. Commercial tobacco provides a strange sort of solidarity along with an important social connection.
Humans are pack animals. We're predispositioned with the desire to "fit in" with those around us. When someone doesn't follow the crowd, they may experience bullying, social pressure, a sense of isolation or the fear of missing out on things. None of these factors will help a person in the midst of adolescence who's not had the time to practice sticking to their principles — or even to fully develop them.
Frankly, it's just so much easier to be the trout following the current instead of the salmon swimming upriver.
…And How Traditional Indigenous Wisdom can Help
Traditional Indigenous wisdom such as the Seven Grandfather teachings exist to help us chart our path towards what we are placed here to do, what we want to do, and having a healthy future.
The first step to reducing or eliminating your commercial tobacco usage is to be honest with yourself. Commercial tobacco is HARMFUL, it can even be "straight deadly", and I don't mean in the slang way.
One day, you may wake up and realize you're the elder or okiskinwahamâkew (teacher) now, even if only for a small circle of people you know and love. Your loved ones may be looking to you for guidance. How can we fulfill the duties to pass down our wisdom and cultural teachings if we are dying many years before we were meant to?
The Creator did not put us here to inflict harm either, especially on our loved ones and families. But the honest truth is that commercial tobacco usage hurts everyone around you, even if you don't mean to do so.
Commercial tobacco is so altered from its traditional form that it should be considered an entirely different concept. The use of commercial tobacco strips away the traditions and cultural significance of tobacco. There is no way to give prayer or thanks, and it does not honour our ancestors.
Traditional Indigenous values get pushed to the wayside when you use commercial tobacco. Putting the addiction over the safety and needs of your family and loved ones is not right. They could be hurt if you allow your "need" to take precedence over the health of your family.
When you decide to quit using commercial tobacco, think about the steps you should take.
Perhaps when you're honest with yourself about what you get from cigarettes, you'll realize stepping down slowly or using a substitute product to aid you is a better option than going cold turkey.
Always remember that you don't have to quit alone, you absolutely can do it, and there is nothing wrong at all with needing a little bit of support during the process.
Truth is very important in most Indigenous cultures. Telling the truth about the dangers of commercial tobacco, helps protect future generations by arming them with the tools they need to fight against cycles of addiction. At the same time, if we aren't careful we will lose vast amounts of wisdom and knowledge before they can be taught to the next generation and preserved for the future.
Using substances that we know are harmful to our bodies isn't loving ourselves in a healthy way. When you choose to quit using commercial tobacco, you show that you love yourself enough to make positive changes and stick to them, even when they're hard.
Indigenous youth are far more likely to avoid commercial tobacco if they're exposed to the full truth about how bad it is. For example, let's use the difficulty of quitting commercial tobacco usage in general. When a youth sees someone they respect and admire stick to their commitment, no matter how hard it is for them, they begin to believe that they can do it too.
Seeing a loved one or someone you admire beat addiction is much more difficult to scoff at or ignore than the alternative — some naggy person in a white coat that doesn't understand the traditional usage of tobacco.
When it's your cool older sibling or cousin who used to smoke and is now quitting, you've got skin in that game. You love them and you want to see them succeed. When they do, it's like a whole new path becomes visible.
The confidence gained from seeing a loved one bravely fight against one of the most addictive substances on the planet is so needed in our communities, and we can be the ones to provide it.