Breathe easy


The Tackling Indigenous Smoking Initiative measures success through the engagement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in their program. And people have begun to listen to the information, campaigns and messages that are making their way into homes and communities under the Initiative.

There’s good reason to listen given smoking is responsible for one in five Indigenous deaths; and around 50% of the combined Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population are current smokers. That’s more than twice the prevalence among the Australian population as a whole.

But making the decision to stop smoking is different for everybody. Someone might find it easy; another might struggle through many attempts. The National Tackling Indigenous Smoking Initiative recognises that one size won’t fit all. Under the initiative there are a range of measures to help people make the decision not to smoke or to quit smoking while providing support to stay off the smokes and improve health and fitness.

The centrepiece of the initiative is a network of regional tobacco coordinators and tobacco action workers located in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Leading the initiative is the national co-ordinator, Dr Tom Calma.

“In 57 locations across Australia we are putting in teams of staff consisting of a regional co-ordinator, three tobacco action workers and two healthy lifestyle workers. We also have a range of social marketing campaigns in states, funds to conduct community programs and national advertising. The best known would be the Break the Chain TV ad,” Dr Calma says.

All measures are focussed on tackling the rate of Indigenous smoking and the resultant health impacts linked to smoking. Not only do 50% of the Indigenous population smoke but this rises to 75% in some remote communities.

“We start smoking younger and we die younger than non Indigenous people – 10 years younger actually and 20% of the deaths are from smoking related diseases,” Dr Calma says.

“Obesity, lack of exercise and lifestyle issues are associated with smoking and there are links with chronic disease. People often think that smoking is only related to lung cancer but it is related to nearly all cancers – respiratory issues from asthma to emphysema, heart disease, strokes and blocked arteries.

“Smoking contributes to stomach, throat and mouth cancers – there are 4,000 different poisons in one cigarette.”

Aside from health impacts, Dr Calma promotes the financial benefit from quitting smoking.

“I like to point out that if you smoke a packet a day, you can spend about $6,000 a year on smoking.”

The Tackling Indigenous Smoking Initiative’s tobacco workforce was rolled out in 20 communities in its first year, and another 20 in its second year, with 17 more teams to be deployed.

“Our tobacco workers work alongside the healthy lifestyle workers. We are working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to improve health and fitness, but also we don’t want people once they do stop smoking to substitute food for cigarettes. Obesity is the second biggest killer of Indigenous people,” Dr Calma says.

“When you decide to stop smoking, you need to change your whole lifestyle and our workforce is there to support people to do that.”

The majority of the national tobacco workforce and healthy lifestyle workers will be hosted in Aboriginal Medical Services. They will work as community educators, community developers and referrers to clinicians for medical guidance.

“They identify people who want to give up and then there are particular activities to help, from exercise classes and support to change behaviours.  Also referrals for Nicotine Replacement Therapy [Nicotine Patches],” he says.

The Tackling Indigenous Smoking Initiative has already gained ground in its bid to get Indigenous people to think about not smoking says Dr Calma.

“Two years ago health professionals/workers often didn’t ask Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people if they smoked but they are now because they need to ask that question. We’ve also now got all Aboriginal Medical Services developing no smoking policies for health workers because too many health professionals smoke.”  Health professionals need to be good role models and lead by example.

Smoking has been declining in wider Australia since the 1950s and significant decreases were seen in 1998. National and state advertising campaigns and building pressure from peers, health professionals and anti smoking groups have put the focus on quitting in direct line of sight for the smoker. The Tackling Indigenous Smoking Initiative is aiming to achieve similar results, but more through delivering supportive, targeted and culturally appropriate programs and services.

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