Harmful effects of tobacco in Indian Country

By Elijah T. Smith

     Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable disease, disability, and death in the United States. Nearly 40 million U.S. adults still smoke cigarettes, and about 4.7 million middle and high school students use at least one tobacco product, including e-cigarettes. Every day, about 3,000 youth younger than the age of 18 smokes their first cigarette.

     American Indians/Alaska Natives have the highest prevalence of cigarette smoking compared to all other racial/ethnic groups in the United States. Each year, nearly half a million Americans die prematurely of smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke. Another 16 million live with a severe illness caused by smoking.

     Smoking can lead to disease and disability and harms nearly every organ in the body. More than 16 million people are living with a disease caused by smoking in the United States. For every person who dies because of the use of long term smoking, at least 30 people will live with a serious smoking-related illness.

     Smoking causes cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes other emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Smoking also increases the risk for tuberculosis, certain eye diseases, and problems of the immune system. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among American Indians/Alaska Natives.

     A big issue today is the electronic cigarettes, sometimes called “e-cigs,” “vapes,” “e-hookahs,” “vape pens,” and electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS). Some e-cigarettes look like regular cigarettes, cigars, or pipes. Some look like USB flash drives, pens, and other everyday items.

     If you work with young people, you may have seen an e-cigarette device without even knowing it. The most often sold e-cigarette in the United States is a brand called JUUL, which looks like a USB flash drive. JUUL “pods,” which contain liquid heated by the device, have as much nicotine as a pack of 20 cigarettes. They also come in flavors, which can make them more appealing to young people. In 2018, CDC and FDA data showed that more than 3.6 million U.S. youth, including 1 in 5 high school students and 1 in 20 middle school students, were past-month e-cigarette users.

     As of October 15, 2019, 1,479* lung injury cases associated with the use of e-cigarette, or vaping, products have been reported to CDC from 49 states (all except Alaska), the District of Columbia, and one U.S. territory. Thirty-three deaths have been confirmed in 24 states. All patients have reported a history of using e-cigarettes or vaping products. Since the specific cause or causes of lung injury are not yet known, the only way to assure that you are not at risk while the investigation continues is to consider refraining from the use of all e-cigarette or vaping products.

     The statistics should open your eyes to make a stand against tobacco products. As indigenous people are known to use tobacco as ceremonial and traditional practices, commercial use should be avoided to keep the health of children and adults as strong as can be. Commercial tobacco can increase the chances of losing members from your tribal community to smoking-related illnesses and losing elders to smoking-related diseases or exposure smoke before they can pass down tribal customs and traditions.

     There are approximately 2.6 million indigenous people in the United States—about 1% of the total population.  Yet, we have the highest prevalence of tobacco use compared to other racial/ethnic groups in the Unites States. As originators of the land around us, it is our responsibility to upkeep the traditions and care of the land that we are on. The future generations are what will keep us and our culture and traditions alive, but if we are to continue to abuse tobacco products and use electronic tobacco products, we are harming not only ourselves but also the generations to come.

     Take simple steps to protect your children from the harmful effects of smoking and secondhand smoke. Children respect and learn from elders’ actions and words. Elders can help protect children from secondhand smoke. You are the keepers of traditions and lead our communities in decision making. Please lead us to protect the children from secondhand smoke. Our tribe’s future depends on the children.