A new program in Sydney is helping indigenous Australians quit smoking. It’s also exploring the deeper reasons why about a third of aboriginal adults smoke, a much higher proportion than the national average.
The organizers of the “Talking About Tobacco Use” project warn that high smoking rates are the biggest risk to health among Australia’s original inhabitants.
Stubborn smoking rates
Public health campaigns have helped smoking rates in Australia to fall steadily. But tobacco use in indigenous communities remains stubbornly high. About a third of aboriginal adults smoke, including Simone Jordan, an aboriginal leader involved in setting up a center in Sydney that is designed to help Australia’s original inhabitants give up cigarettes.
Jordan is also a participant in the program.
“Most of my family did smoke, and it was not seen as a bad thing, it wasn’t discouraged and, I guess, I just thought I was cool for doing it,” Jordan said. “I guess the goal for us is to get people to quit, help them, make them feel good about it, encourage others. If they fall over, they are not a failure. There is other things we can try, and share with people what is working and what is not.”
Indigenous Australians die, on average, 10 years before their nonaboriginal counterparts. High rates of poverty, inadequate housing and alcohol and drug abuse are, in part, to blame, but professor Renee Bittoun, a tobacco treatment specialist, says that smoking causes immense damage.
“It is a huge contributor, it is probably the biggest contributor,” Bittoun said. “I am not saying that other substances are not a big concern, and they are, but the medical consequences — it is nothing like smoking.”
Australia was settled by the British in 1788. Academics argue that high rates of smoking among aboriginal people are the result in part to colonization. Tobacco was a de facto currency and was widely used in state- or church-run missions where many indigenous Australians were sent to live in the 19th century in an attempt to assimilate them or to convert them to Christianity.
Dr. Raymond Lovett is an epidemiologist at the Australian National University.
“Tobacco was used right up until the recent past as payment for labor, and it was also part of the mission rations. Obviously that legacy has produced this really high smoking prevalence,” Lovett said.
Smoking is not a traditional part of aboriginal culture, but in some remote settlements 1 in 2 adults smoke.
Indigenous Australians make up about 3 percent of Australia’s national population of 25 million people.