Vi Waln: Too many of our own people continue to smoke cigarettes

Vi Waln

The Right To Smoke Deadly Cigarettes
By Vi Waln
Lakota Country Times Columnist

The human race suffers from many different types of cancer. We have lost many of our relatives to cancer. Today, many Lakota people are cancer survivors due to chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

Lung cancer is the deadliest form of cancer in the United States. In fact, the American Indian Cancer Foundation estimates that lung cancer rates can be 83% higher among our people. More men and women die from lung cancer than they do from any other form of cancer.

The Centers for Disease Control state “Cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the United States, including nearly 42,000 deaths resulting from secondhand smoke exposure. This adds up to about one in five deaths annually, or 1,300 deaths every day.”

People who don’t smoke greatly reduce their chances of getting lung cancer. Smokers do suffer from many unhealthy effects of primary, or first hand, cigarette smoke. Unfortunately, many people are addicted to commercial tobacco. Smokers are at a greater risk of developing lung disease.

Second hand smoke can also cause lung cancer. Non-smokers who work in environments where smoking is allowed often suffer from lung problems. For instance, those people who frequent or work in Indian casinos where smoking is allowed are at greater risk for lung disease.

Third hand smoke is still another after effect of cigarette smokers. Third hand smoke is the residual left on walls and other objects after the smoke has visibly left the area. Nicotine residual builds up in places where people smoke regularly. For instance, when a cigarette smoker cleans the interior of their car windows, there is a yellowish brown residual that comes off the glass. That is an example of third hand smoke. It is also left in your clothes, furniture and other objects exposed to cigarette smoke.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 40 million people were smoking cigarettes in 2014. Consequently, 29.2% of those smokers were American Indians/Alaska Natives. That means more than 29 of every 100 American Indians were smoking cigarettes in 2014. But I don’t think 29.2% applies anymore. Today, the number of American Indian cigarette smokers could actually be more like 60-70% of the population.

Last year, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Council passed the Smoke-Free Air Act. This legislation banned smoking inside all public places on the reservation. It is probably the first action of its kind to happen in Indian Country. This non-smoking legislation on Cheyenne River was made possible by the Canli Coalition.

Last month, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) approved Resolution #SPO-16-046, which was passed with the intent of “Supporting Policies to Reduce Commercial Tobacco Use, Secondhand Smoke Exposure and Tobacco-Related Disease among American Indians.” The Resolution states that American Indian adult rates of smoking are as high as 50% compared to 16.8% tobacco use rate of non-Native adults. American Indian high school students have the highest smoking prevalence of all racial/ethnic groups.

Those are alarming statistics. As long as American Indian people continue to smoke cigarettes, our children will think it’s okay to mimic us by carrying on our addiction to nicotine. If the smoking chain is not broken now, our unborn generations will continue to die from disproportionately high disease rates caused by cigarette smoking, including cancer, as compared to the rest of the country.

Resolution SPO-16-046 also states that the NCAI “does hereby endorse policies for the protection of tribal community members from tobacco use and secondhand smoke exposure through comprehensive tribal commercial tobacco-free air policies (including all forms of commercial tobacco products) in indoor workplaces and public places (including tribal casinos), providing access to high quality tobacco cessation services, and promotes the creation of policy to dis-incentivize individuals from purchasing and using commercial tobacco products.”

Another area we must consider is the use of commercial tobacco in our ceremonies. Currently, many Lakota people use commercial tobacco in ceremony. That is, many Lakota people mix chemically-laden tobaccos like Bugler or Prince Albert with other herbs and put this mixture into the Cannunpa. We use commercial tobacco in our offerings for ceremony also.

These are habits we have to change in order to promote health. Many will argue about the intent of using commercial tobacco this way as being sacred; but the fact still remains that many people, including children, smoke the Cannunpa at ceremony. How can we promote Wicozani when we are putting a chemically laden substance into our Cannunpa? We have to make an effort to return to the natural herbal mixture our ancestors used when they prayed.

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Next time you are at a public gathering on the rez, take notice of how many Lakota people are smoking cigarettes. Some of our sickly people can’t even go to their own tribal program offices or tribal casino because of the cigarette smoke lingering there. People who suffer from lung illnesses cannot be exposed to cigarette smoke, so they stay away from the places where smoking is allowed. This is a form of discrimination against our own people.

Furthermore, American Indian smokers become very defensive when it comes to their cigarettes. They get very angry and claim they have a right to smoke their deadly cigarettes, which is true. But is it a right worth fighting for when the toxic smoke from those cigarettes has the potential to send fellow tribal citizens to the Emergency Room? Non-smokers have rights too. We all have the right to a healthy, smoke-free environment.

We continue to pray for Indian Country to become smoke free. There is nothing ceremonial about smoking cigarettes. In fact, many of our relatives have died from lung cancer or other diseases because they didn’t stop smoking cigarettes.

Please consider your family and unborn generations the next time you think you need to buy a pack of cigarettes. It’s up to us to promote smoke-free reservations. The health of our children depends on it.

(Vi Waln is an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation and is nationally published journalist.)

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