Smoking is a major public health issue and a leading cause of premature death affecting smokers and non-smokers in Canada. Tobacco-related illnesses and diseases are urgent issues in First Nations and Inuit communities, where smoking rates are more than triple the rate for the rest of Canada.
Health Canada promotes tobacco control and provides resources to communities with a view to improving the health status of First Nations and Inuit people.
For many First Nations people, tobacco has been used traditionally in ceremonies, rituals, and prayer for thousands of years. It is used for a variety of medicinal purposes and its ceremonial use has powerful spiritual meaning establishing a direct communication link between the person giving and the spiritual world receiving. In the traditional sense, the most powerful way of communicating with the spirits is to smoke tobacco in a sacred pipe.
While tobacco is sacred, the recreational use of tobacco with its high content of nicotine, is addictive and harmful. First Nations Elders maintain that this type of use is disrespectful of the spiritual, medicinal, and traditional use of tobacco.
The recreational use (or misuse) of tobacco is any use of tobacco in a non-traditional way. For example, smoking cigarettes, chewing tobacco or snuff, smoking non-traditional tobacco in non-sacred pipes or smoking cigars. There is an important distinction between the traditional and non-traditional use of tobacco as one is respectful of First Nations customs, the other being dangerous and harmful.
Traditional tobacco has been used by many First Nations people to:
Inuit do not practise the traditional or ceremonial use of tobacco.
The First Nations and Inuit Health Branch of Health Canada reports the following facts on smoking rates in First Nations and Inuit communities:
These statistics are from the First Nations Regional Health Longitudinal Survey 2002/2003, 2006 Aboriginal Peoples Survey, 2004 Baseline Study among First Nations On-reserve and Inuit in the North, Environics Research Group.