Very Few Countries Track Smoking Rates Among Indigenous Peoples 

    All over the world, few countries are taking the trouble to monitor smoking prevalence among Indigenous populations, according to a narrative study released in March.

    The report, “Smoking Prevalence Among Indigenous Peoples of the World,” covered 105 countries with Indigenous populations. It found that only five of these countries had definitive information about Indigenous smoking rates. Where such rates are known, they are disproportionately high.

    The report was authored by Dr. Marewa Glover, who leads the Centre of Research Excellence in Indigenous Sovereignty and Smoking (COREISS), based in Auckland, New Zealand. Throughout the report, Glover points to how the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) discourages the implementation of equitable and compassionate policies impacting Indigenous populations.

    “Criminalizing behaviors represents a risk for peoples who may have disproportionately higher smoking rates, and who can be disproportionately targeted by police.”

    “Most of the countries in this report have signed up to the FCTC guidelines, and as a result, they are being urged to implement and enforce laws (regardless of the risk of harm) prohibiting the use of any and all tobacco products,” Glover told Filter.

    “Criminalizing behaviors associated with tobacco product use represents a risk for Indigenous peoples who may have disproportionately higher smoking rates than other ethnic groups, and who can be disproportionately targeted by police, and incarcerated,” she continued.

    Glover, who is Māori, previously wrote for Filter about how, in her native New Zealand, a law banning smoking or vaping in cars when a minor is present exposes Māori women, who have the highest rate of smoking, to racial profiling and a higher risk of being arrested and incarcerated. 

    In other countries, it can get even worse, she pointed out. “Whilst a smoking-related ban in one country might not be enforced at all or may result in a manageable fine, in totalitarian countries the offender could be caned or imprisoned.”

    Australia is one country that reports disproportionately high rates of smoking among the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Over 40 percent of Indigenous adults there smoked, which is three times higher than the national average. Indigenous people in Australia are also disproportionately targeted by police and incarcerated.

    Another risk of prohibitionist policies focused on eliminating all forms of tobacco and nicotine use is that some Indigenous peoples have long-established traditions of growing and using tobacco for various reasons. The cultivation and use of tobacco dates back at least 8,000 years.

    But again, the vast majority of countries do not compile smoking data for Indigenous people. To take one example from the report, overall daily smoking prevalence in Greenland for people aged 15-plus was found, as of 2015, to be 42.7 percent for men and 44.3 percent for women. “This likely slightly underestimates the Kalaallit prevalence,” the report notes, “but they do make up 89.5% of the population.”

    Greenland, the vast, thinly populated island between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, is an autonomous territory, or colony, of the Kingdom of Denmark. And while Greenland isn’t a party to the FCTC, Denmark is—and heavily influences Greenland’s tobacco control policy.

    “No data for Indigenous people was found.”

    Meanwhile Guyana, in South America, has an Indigenous population estimated at 9.2 percent, most of whom live in rural areas. National daily smoking rates were found, as of 2018, to be 22.1 percent for men over 15, and 2.2 percent for women.

    Guyana’s government attempted, in the 1970s and 1980s, to integrate Indigenous groups into national statistics. But according to Glover’s report, when it comes to smoking, “No data for Indigenous people was found.”

    “The scale of the task regarding Indigenous peoples is put into context by the fact that they make up 6 percent (476 million people) of the world’s population,” Paddy Costall, a director of Knowledge-Action-Change, an organization that advocates for harm reduction approaches to nicotine, told Filter. “As such, the issue of tobacco use within these communities is a significant one that requires understanding and assessment. The lack of specific data makes this task more difficult.”

    Glover concludes in the report that countries with high Indigenous smoking rates need to remember the human rights mandates outlined in both the FCTC and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, if they’re to avoid making tobacco control policies that increase inequalities and harms.

    “Policies and laws intended to stop tobacco use, including taxing tobacco products, must exclude tobacco growing, manufacture and use where those practices are part of the traditional way of life or a traditional source of livelihood or a craft of an Indigenous people,” she said.



    Photograph by Oleg Dubyna via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0

    The COREISS RAUPO Podcast, hosted by Marewa Glover and Michael McGrady, is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Audible, Amazon Music, and Google Podcasts.

    COREISS, Knowlege-Action-Change and The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, have received grants from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. Both The Influence Foundation and Michael McGrady have received tobacco harm reduction scholarships from Knowledge-Action-Change. Filter‘s Editorial Independence Policy applies.

    • Michael is a journalist and researcher. His work has been supported by the Knowledge-Action-Change Tobacco Harm Reduction Scholarship program; the independently administered scholarship is supported by a grant from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. Michael is also the journalist-in-residence and visiting research fellow in tobacco and drug harm reduction policy at the American Consumer Institute, Center for Citizen Research. He conducts consumer-oriented and behavior research on the impacts of public health regulations on people who use drugs, especially nicotine. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Hill and the South China Morning Post. He lives in Colorado.

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