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High smoking rates linked to ongoing effects of colonisation

Researchers at ANU have reviewed a range of existing historical evidence to determine the root cause of high smoking rates in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population.

They found smoking was a complex behaviour influenced by a range of factors including colonisation, the ongoing effects of trauma, stress, racism, and exclusion from economic structures like employment and education.

Tobacco is the leading contributor to the burden of disease for Indigenous Australians, causing 12% of all diseases and cost the community 23,000 years of healthy life in 2011.

ANU research officer Emily Colonna said addressing the historical context of tobacco use was an important element in reducing smoking rates.

Ms Colonna said historical government reports and personal diaries detailed the European introduction of tobacco to Indigenous Australians as a way of establishing relationships and was given as rations in Aboriginal missions.

There was also evidence that Indigenous cattle stations workers were paid in tobacco as recently as the 1960s.

A report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found an estimated 13,800 Indigenous Australians over the age of 50 who were removed from their families under the government policy – known as the stolen generation – were nearly twice as likely to be a smoker as the general population.

Ms Colonna said programs developed and led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were key to reducing smoking rates and these programs needed to be expanded and provided long-term funding and continual evaluation.

“Culturally appropriate programs that address the historical context of smoking are doing a lot of good,” she said.

The report found a 10% decline in smoking rates in the last 15 years, with significant progress in young adults in urban and regional areas.

Co-author of the review, ANU Associate Professor Ray Lovett, said the study identified further ways to drive change as most smokers do want to quit.

“This research shows reducing tobacco use is achievable with a suite of approaches.”

Almost seven in 10 (69%) Indigenous smokers have attempted to quit smoking including almost half (48%) in the past year.

Project collaborator and HealthInfoNet Director, Professor Neil Drew, said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples experience discrimination and barriers to both education and employment, at least in part due to colonisation and its lasting impacts.

“This review shows these factors can contribute to smoking or make it harder to quit,” he said.

The review has been published by the Alcohol and Other Drugs Knowledge Centre.

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