Report: Native women heaviest smokers
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MARCH 28, 2001

American Indian and Alaska Native women are the heaviest smokers among American women, according to a report released by the Surgeon General on Tuesday.

For the years 1997 to 1998, 34.5 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women reported current tobacco usage, dwarfing the rates of Whites (23.5 percent) and African-Americans (21.9 percent). When compared to other racial and ethnic groups, usage was even more staggering: American Indian women smoked two-and-a-half times the rate of Hispanics (13.8 percent) and three times the rate of Asian-Americans (11.2 percent).

And those were just figures for Native women over the age of 18. Among high school seniors from 1990 to 1994, 39.4 percent of Indian teenagers reported the use of cigarettes, a rate comparable to Whites (33.1 percent).

But Indian teenagers smoked twice the rate of Hispanics (19.2 percent), nearly three times the rate of Asian-Americans (13.8 percent), and four-and-a-half times the rate of African-Americans (8.6 percent).

Smoking among Indian women of all ages is also largely a regional phenomenon. Native women in Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and the Plains are more likely to be smokers than their counterparts in the Southwest.

In Montana, for example, 57 percent Indian teenage girls living on or near reservations reported using cigarettes in a 1993 survey. On the Navajo Nation, however, only 9 percent of teenage girls reported smoking in a 1991 survey.

Overall, the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1997 reported 65.1 percent of Indian teenage girls at BIA schools were smokers.

Studies on why Indian women and girls smoke at much higher rates than their counterparts are few. Vanessa Tsosie, a tobacco program coordinator at the Alaska Native Health Board in Anchorage suggested women often feel a sense of independence through smoking.

This image has been heavily promoted by the tobacco industry during much of the past century through slogans like "You've Come a Long Way, Baby," and special brands of cigarettes marketed to women. As long a society accepts smoking, Tsosie said women will continue to smoke.

Lorene Reano of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) hopes future studies would help explain the reasons for such high tobacco usage by Indian women. Located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Reano is the CDC's sole Indian tobacco control coordinator, providing consultation to tribes and Indian health organizations as they implement tobacco cessation, or quitting, programs.

"A lot of tribes are doing education prevention and control programs right now," said Reno. "A lot of those opportunities have come forth through funding by the tobacco master settlement agreement, through tobacco taxes, or even through state tobacco funding."

The CDC last fall funded six technical support centers to help tribes and organizations build tobacco support programs. The Creek (Muscogee) Nation of Oklahoma, the Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona, the California Rural Indian Health Board, the Northwest Portland (Oregon) Area Indian Health Board, the Alaska Native Health Board, and the Aberdeen (South Dakota) Area Tribal Chairman's Health Board, have received a total of $1 million to fund the programs, which will run for five years.

Get the Smoking Study:
Women and Smoking: A Report of the Surgeon General - 2001 (CDC 3/27)

Relevant Links:
The National Women's Health Information Center -
Tobacco Control, Indian Health Service -
Alaska Native Health Board -
Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona -
Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board -
California Rural Indian Health Board -