Smoking is twice as common among some aboriginal teens than teens in the rest of population, say researchers who are calling for more culturally appropriate programs.

Aboriginal youth living off-reserve in Canada use tobacco, alcohol and drugs significantly more than non-aboriginal youth and have higher health risks, suggests the study in Monday's issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.


Robert Hurley smokes a cigarette in Toronto in 2008. Governments could focus on funding programs to prevent use of alcohol, tobacco and illicit drug use together, a researcher says. (J.P. Moczulski/Canadian Press)

Most aboriginal people in Canada live off-reserve but there was little information on their patterns of tobacco use, said Tara Elton-Marshall of the Propel Centre for Population Health Impact at the University of Waterloo and her co-authors.

Researchers compared smoking habits, use of other tobacco products, alcohol and drugs as well as  second-hand smoke exposure in 2,620 off-reserve aboriginal youth and 26,223 non-aboriginal youth. All youth were in Grades 9 and had participated in the 2008 Youth Smoking Survey.

They found:

  • 24.9 per cent of aboriginal respondents reported being smokers.
  • 2.6 per cent previously smoked.
  • 72.4 per cent were non-smokers.

In the non-aboriginal youth, 10.4 per cent were current smokers, 1.5 per cent were former smokers and 88 per cent were non-smokers.

"Most of the aboriginal youth who identified themselves as current smokers, particularly females, reported that they had tried to quit at least once previously," wrote the authors. "This finding suggests that aboriginal youth are interested in quitting but have not been successful and that they may require additional support to stop smoking.

"The high prevalence of smoking and use of other substances among aboriginal youth living off-reserve highlights the need for culturally appropriate smoking cessation and substance prevention programs that target aboriginal youth," Elton-Marshall and her co-authors concluded.

Since Aboriginals have traditionally used tobacco for ceremonial rites, Elton-Marshall said she thinks it is important not to use the same quit-smoking strategies for non-Aboriginal youth as Aboriginal youth, which are the fast growing group of the Canadian population.

Combine alcohol, smoking programs

The smoking places Aboriginals at much greater risk of developing cancer, heart disease and stroke, Elton-Marshall noted.

Compared to non-aboriginal youth, aboriginal youth also had a higher prevalence of regular exposure to second-hand smoke at home (37.3 per cent versus 19.7 per cent) and in cars (51 per cent versus 30.3 per cent), the researchers found.

Given the findings, Elton-Marshall suggested that governments focus on funding programs to prevent use of alcohol, tobacco and illicit drug use together.

Most of the respondents reported having tried alcohol (88.5 per cent of aboriginal and 84.2 per cent of non-aboriginal youth). Among those who had tried alcohol, aboriginal youth were more likely to engage in binge drinking (91.9 per cent compared to 85.2 per cent of non-aboriginals).

Aboriginal youth also said they used marijuana (62.0 per cent) and other illicit drugs (34.8 per cent) more frequently, compared to non-aboriginal youth (41.0 per cent and 20.6 per cent, respectively).

With files from CBC's Leslie McLaren