Tuesday, July 29, 2014
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Group encourages First Nations to keep tobacco sacred

Smoking rate on First Nations is higher than national average

Reported by Jill Smith

newstalk CJME 980 (Regina)

The pipe is packed and lit. The prayers rise up from the sacred tobacco to the Creator. The pipe and tobacco—those are the gifts from the White Buffalo Calf Woman, according to some First Nations' traditions. However, the tobacco in the red Number 7 pouch or the pack of Export “A” people stand outside and smoke on a coffee break is nowhere near sacred, nor healing.

Traditionally, sacred tobacco is a mix of sage, sweet grass, tobacco and cedar. It was never meant to be inhaled. That is the message Janice Burgess is trying to get across.

“The smoke was to be put in the mouth and released to take or carry our prayers to the Creator,” said Burgess. “I think over the years some of the intended use of ceremonial tobaccos has just kind of changed and people have forgotten the real intended use.”

Burgess runs PACT (Partnership to Assist with Cessation of Tobacco). The organization is behind a push to keep tobacco sacred.

“The white ribbon campaign was created out of a need or a knowledge that accessibility to cessation services for aboriginal groups, First Nations, or Metis was maybe not even being offered and maybe what was being offered was not really appropriate or didn’t fit with ceremonial use of tobacco,” said Burgess.

Smokers put a white ribbon on their pack of cigarettes to remind themselves of their addiction and their pledge to quit. Once they’ve quit, they’re supposed to place their ribbon and ceremonial tobacco in a clean place where no one walks.

“Maybe they don’t quit right away but at least they’re thinking about it,” said Burgess.

Saskatchewan has the highest rate of smoking among the provinces, according to Statistics Canada. In this province, 22.8 per cent of people smoke compared to national average is 19.3 per cent.

The rate of smoking among First Nations people is double the national average, according to Health Canada.The stats are worse for those who live on reserves. The First Nations and Inuit Health Branch of Health Canada reports that across Canada, 59 per cent of First Nations people on-reserve smoke and that the majority of those started smoking between the ages of 13 and 16.

“I think that’s very simplistic to say that the reason Saskatchewan smoking rates are higher because of aboriginal smokers. That may be a small part of it but that certainly is not the whole story here,” said Donna Pasiechnik, manager of tobacco control with the Saskatchewan chapter of the Canadian Cancer Society.

“In Manitoba right next door, they too have similar demographics to us: 14 per cent of their population is aboriginal, yet their smoking rates, according to this latest survey, are 19 per cent versus 23 per cent here.”

“It’s going to take some bold policies and investment from the provincial government. We spend very little on tobacco control programs,” said Pasiechnik. “We’ve also fallen behind other provinces when it comes to policy to reduce tobacco use.”

Tami Denomie is Director of Health Promotions with the provincial government. She says the province has funded three pilot programs that targeted First Nations smokers.

One was called the Green Light Project out of the University of Saskatchewan. People whose homes are smoke-free are encouraged to install a green porch light.

“That sends a message to your entire community that you’re celebrating being a smoke-free environment,” said Denomie.

The province has taken what Denomie calls a “balanced approach” when it comes to tobacco education.

“We have limited resources, I guess. And in order to (have) the most impact with the resources we have, we have taken a bit more of a provincial approach,” she said, responding to why the province doesn’t target aboriginal smokers more.

Instead, the province is focusing its efforts on young people.

“Reaching youth is challenging, of course,” said Denomie. “We’re going right to youth and we’re asking them questions and asking them what would encourage them and their peers to stop smoking, so using the voices of youth and actually turn that around and be a peer support.”

Denomie says she hears the full gambit from young people. She says some say smoking is gross and expensive. Others say they smoke because their friends do.

The province then takes the thoughts young people have on smoking and turns them into anti-tobacco ad campaigns. Pasiechnik says that’s not enough. She wants the government to drop the “balanced approach” and adopt stronger public policy. For example, she wants the province to ban flavoured tobacco products which she says attracts young people.

About 1,550 people die each year in Saskatchewan from tobacco-related illnesses, according to the Cancer Society.

“If we were talking about that many people dying from drug-related illness, we’d be all over it,” said Pasiechnik.

Back at the PACT office Burgess isn’t sure how “all over it” the white ribbon campaign is. She says she doesn’t know what kind of impact the program has had on First Nation smoking rates.

“But I think just having people request white ribbon cards or telling us stories about using it in their communities I think is testament that it is helping. It is working.”

Burgess says those who have put the white ribbon in their cigarette packs have chosen to take the journey towards kicking their addiction. So if you see a white ribbon, or a ribbon yellowed over time, you’ll know how long that person has been on the journey to quit.

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