“States and cities have come to understand that if they jack up the taxes on cigarettes — teenagers especially have a harder time buying them. This year, the National Cancer Institute and World Health Organization concluded that a big price increase is one of the most effective tools for decreasing tobacco use. But there are certain communities where relatively cheap cigarettes are still easy to get. In western New York, where I grew up, there is at least one place to avoid paying high prices: on the reservations of the Seneca tribe.” J. Kourkounis, Newsworks
“There are more than 500 tribes across the country. Each is a sovereign nation and they set their own rules. For example, the New York state cigarette tax is $4.35 per pack, but smoke shops on Seneca reservations don’t add on that extra tax, which keeps prices lower…I was hoping to ask Seneca Nation officials about the low tobacco prices and the health costs of smoking among tribe members but they declined my request for an interview.
As a group, American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest cigarette smoking rates compared to all other racial and ethnic groups in the United States. That’s according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Health research shows that across decades, cigarette companies have targeted American Indians by funding cultural events such as powwows and rodeos and by using Native American images in advertising and packaging.
Kristine Rhodes, an enrolled member of Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa tribe, leads the American Indian Cancer Foundation.
‘Smoking rates among American Indians and Alaskan Natives vary tremendously by region and by tribe,’ she says.
For example, in the Southwest United States, American Indians have the lowest smoking rates, even lower than mainstream America. This is really great news that we celebrate and we see a corresponding lower cancer rate there for smoking-related cancers,’ Rhodes said. The Cancer Foundation is working on control policies around the nation. But tobacco sales are big money for some tribes and and Rhodes says a readiness to change is different from community to community.
No health research yet, but there is a movement that Kristine Rhodes and others think might decrease rates of smoking among native people. The plan is to help people give up unhealthy habits while holding on to native traditions. And that includes using and reclaiming sacred traditional tobacco.
‘Some tribal communities also use tobacco for weddings,’says Coco Villaluz, a community educator for the nonprofit organization ClearWay Minnesota. She says traditional tobacco is offered as a sign of respect. It’s often used without burning the plant, other times it is smoked in a pipe to carry prayers to the Creator.
For decades, a federal law cut American Indians off from many religious practices and prevented many people from using sacred tobacco.
Today, Villaluz urges people to reject commercial tobacco and stop using it for ceremonies and prayers. Her organization offers people help to quit smoking. And the group also advocates for smoke-free areas on Indian lands.
We all want the same mission as everybody else who’s working on tobacco, whether it’s in tribal communities or non-tribal communities. We want our people to be healthy, we don’t want to see any more of our loved ones suffering from commercial tobacco related illnesses.”