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Native Sun News: Reservation county ranks highest in smoking

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA –– Located entirely within the Pine Ridge Reservation, Shannon County has the highest smoking rate of any county in the United States, according to South Dakota Department of Health administrators. Forty-seven percent of the adult population smokes. The biggest culprit related to heart disease statewide is smoking, and the leading cause of death for all ages is heart disease.

Authorities divulged the up-to-date statistics on May 16 at the Black Hills Knowledge Network’s “Data Matters” Forum on Health and Wellness, a project sponsored by the Black Hills Area Community Foundation and public libraries.

Heart health is among “key issues we are going to point out to inform, educate and empower people in the Black Hills area,” South Dakota Secretary of Health Doneen Hollingsworth said during the forum held in the classroom building at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.

Buffalo County, home to the headquarters of the Crow Creek Reservation, is second only to Shannon County in smoking habits, with 46 percent of the people smoking, according to the Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System.

The other South Dakota counties located entirely on Indian reservation lands are the ones that have the next-highest smoking rates in the state: Corson, Todd, Dewey and Ziebach, which are on the Standing Rock, Rosebud and Cheyenne River reservations, respectively. Dewey and Ziebach counties comprise almost all of Cheyenne River.

“One of the keys to good health is controlling tobacco use,” said Mathew Christenson, South Dakota Health Statistics director. “I hate to say it, but Rapid City is not doing so well in that either.”

Some 17.5 percent of Rapid City adults are smokers, more than the national average of 17.3 among 192 cities in the National Adult Tobacco Survey.

The statistics show that an American Indian 18-year-old in South Dakota is 10 times more likely to die than a non-Indian at that age, according to Lon Kightlinger, state epidemiologist. He said 75 percent of non-Indian deaths in South Dakota occur after 70 years of age. “Early mortality is much more common in the American Indian population,” he noted.

Of the 42,000 deaths in the most recent 6-year period on record, heart disease and cancer accounted for more than 20,000, the state’s archives show.

“One in two deaths in South Dakota was caused by heart disease or cancer,” said Kightlinger. “Tobacco is the number one preventable cause of death in South Dakota and the nation,” he added. No. 2 is obesity.

The forum was co-sponsored by the Bush Foundation, Rapid City Public Library Foundation, Rapid City Regional Health and the John T. Vucurevich Foundation.

Together with two similar forums on separate occasions, the forum’s purpose is to increase public participation in decision-making by filling gaps in local information distribution caused by funding shortfalls in mass media outlets’ budgets, according to Eric Abrahamson, Black Hills Knowledge project director.

“We’re building an online community archives – not creating data but helping aggregate it from sources such as the Department of Health and working with librarians to make it accessible,” said Abrahamson.

He said he hopes Oglala Community College on the Pine Ridge Reservation will soon join the project.

Rapid City Regional Health’s chief medical officer, James Keegan, introduced the speakers at the forum’s keynote presentation.

Regional Health is a group of 40 health care service providers in western South Dakota and the largest employer in the Rapid City area.

Serving a 350-square-mile, three-state population, the group’s cornerstone Rapid City Regional Hospital has come under fire recently for its alleged mishandling of American Indian clientele and their claims.

The hospital’s Native American board member, Tom Shortbull, and fellow board member Steve McCarthy resigned in protest over the other board members’ vote to raise fees to boost the budget in 2010.

“I think (Regional Health) runs a real good hospital, but I’ve always been concerned that there is just too much not being sympathetic to the plight of the poor and the middle class,” Shortbull said at the time of his resignation.

(Contact Talli Nauman at

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