Native Cigarettes and Tobacco

Native Cigarettes

Among American Indians and Alaska Natives, high school students report the highest current rates of cigarette smoking of any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. Yet commercial tobacco use is distinct from the cultural traditions involving tobacco that are central to many Native communities. Read more

On a fenced compound on the Mohawk reservation near Cornwall, Ontario, the smuggling of tobacco continues. Police, tobacco workers and mobsters patrol this secretive compound, which houses about 10 factories that produce millions of cigarettes. The products are shipped into the U.S., sold tax free, and smuggled back into Canada through Akwesasne, the reserve that straddles the border with the U.S. The smuggled cigarettes are then made available for sale throughout the region.

Native Cigarettes: A Journey Through Tradition and Culture

The tobacco industry has targeted Native Americans since the 20th century. Dana Carroll, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Minnesota, says there is evidence that cigarette manufacturers intentionally used images of Native Americans on cigarette packs to appeal to them.

For some, tobacco is sacred. Sean Brown, a Seminole Nation of Oklahoma member, remembers his mama-on burning tobacco to heal people. She was using sacred tobacco, or kinniki, that is different from the commercial variety in cigarettes. It’s a smaller plant (Nicotiana rustica) that grew in different varieties across North America before European contact.

While tobacco is still central to Native culture, there are ways to reduce its use. Researchers have found that Natives are more receptive to messages about health consequences and tobacco prevention if they include cultural cues.