Native Cigarettes Threaten Native Health

Native Cigarettes

For generations, tobacco has been the lifeblood of First Nations peoples, a sacred medicine that helped heal their bodies and spirits. But now the plant is also threatening their health. In a small factory on Kahnawake Mohawk territory, workers grind raw tobacco into a noisy machine that produces thousands of cigarettes per day. Outside authorities call it contraband; locals say it’s a vital new source of income and a reaffirmation of their right to sovereignty. Source

Multiple past studies have reported that, compared to white people, American Indians tend to have higher rates of cigarette use. But those comparisons often don’t adjust for differences in income and education levels. And when they do, they can lead to the incorrect assumption that being Native American makes someone inherently prone to smoking.

Preserving Heritage: The Role of Native Cigarettes in Indigenous Communities

Nonetheless, many Native Americans find the appeal of the low-cost, tax-exempt cigarettes manufactured on their reservations hard to resist. And, as a result, the industry’s growth poses challenges for both the health of smokers and the communities where the tobacco is produced.

For one, advertising campaigns for commercial tobacco products have long misappropriated traditional Native culture in an attempt to sell the product. And some Native Americans are finding that “Native owned and grown” slogans on the packages of popular tobacco brands like Natural American Spirit reinforce harmful stereotypes about their heritage. Tobacco is known to cause heart disease and lung cancer, which are the leading causes of death for American Indian and Alaska Native adults. And in addition to the physical health effects of smoking, it can cause psychological problems like depression.

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