Cigarette smoking has been in the headlines lately with a focus on young people who are starting the habit. I met up with a few friends of mine recently who still smoke. I was really shocked when they showed me their cigarette packages with gross pictures of the results of smoking. Of course, there were also emphatic warning labels. It had been a few years since I last had a good look at a cigarette package and it seemed odd to me to watch my friends smoke their cigarettes in complete disregard of the dire warnings on their packages.
In many northern First Nation communities smoking is still acceptable to most people. Most of my people up the James Bay coast have never really understood, or seriously considered, the negative effects of smoking cigarettes or any type of tobacco. Back when my dad was a kid, people started smoking at a really young age. This was more or less seen as a coming of age milestone. To some people it was even thought of as a way to boost one’s energy and keep a person on the move during hard cold winter nights or long hot mosquito infested summer days.
Today, many First Nation people still smoke. It seems that they are not really aware of, or convinced, that smoking is all that dangerous. Of course there is also the factor that nicotine is an extremely addictive drug, right up there with heroin and cocaine, so even if many people are aware of the health risks, they just can’t beat the addiction. Since there are a lot of smokers in Native communities, it is hard for young people to resist taking up the habit. I puffed my first cigarette when I was sixteen and even then I was considered by my peers to have started late.
I grew up thinking cigarette smoking was normal and witnessed people in my community who had been puffing on tobacco for many years and spent several dollars a day to feed their multi-pack, cigarette addiction. For some older people, who smoked regularly over several decades, it meant health complications that caused a lot of problems in their later years. These were people that worked hard and lived out on the land a lot so they should have been in good shape, but the tobacco stole a good part of their lives.
I was influenced by many people around me who I saw smoking when I was a kid, including my dad Marius. His generation grew up in a culture that accepted smoking and considered tobacco, when a person was able to afford it, almost a necessity for going out on the land. He has many stories of being on his trap lines in the remote wilderness and counting on his tobacco for comfort.
Smoking has only been around for about five hundred years in the non-Native world, but First Nation people have used tobacco for a much longer time. In several Native cultures throughout the Americas, tobacco was used for many centuries before the Europeans discovered it. It was used by Native people for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. The properties and affects of the tobacco plant were understood by Native people and this drug was used with respect.
Tobacco was one of the first discoveries to be taken back to Spain and Europe by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Later, Portuguese and English explorers also helped to introduce tobacco throughout Europe. Once the addictive qualities of this drug were felt by everyone who used it, the practice of smoking quickly spread to the rest of the world. In less than 200 years the act of puffing a cigarette or smoking a pipe became part of the social fabric of all cultures in the Old World.
Today smoking is seen as an epidemic that is causing serious problems for many people. Still it is strange that, with all we know about the dangers of smoking, cigarette companies are promoting their products more than ever and targeting very young people. The fact is that Nicotine is a very addictive drug and smoking kills thousands of people every year and is a burden on our health system as well. Perhaps it is time to rekindle our respect for tobacco.