A report released last year by the U.S. Surgeon General found that Oklahoma had the seventh highest smoking rate in the nation from 2006 to 2010 among children aged 12 to 17 and adults aged 18 to 25. Among adults 26 and over, Oklahoma has the fourth highest rate. Close to half of American Indian adolescents and young adults in the nation smoke, the report said.
The Oklahoma State Department of Health reported that in 2011, Native American adults had the highest smoking rates of all ethnic groups, at about 34 percent. They also had the highest rates of lung cancer, with 605 new cases per 100,000 population in 2009.
Raising tobacco tax rates is one of the surest ways to decrease commercial tobacco use, said Sally Carter, tribal liaison for the state department of health.
“It’s really considered a gold-standard in tobacco prevention,” Carter said.
Tribes have taken some steps to lower smoking rates among members.
In recent years, the Cherokee Nation, which has licensed vendors who sell tobacco, has banned smoking on much of its tribal property, said Randy Gibson, program liaison for the Cherokee Nation’s Healthy Nation initiative. It also has banned “thirdhand smoke,” such as smoke odor on clothing, from its child-care program.
The tribe’s anti-smoking efforts have paid off, Gibson said. Health officials have seen a drop in lung cancer rates among tribal members over the last three years.
Still, “a lot more needs to be done because the rate for native versus non-native is still very high,” he said.
Carter said the health department has partnered with numerous tribes to help prevent or stop smoking, using media campaigns and referrals from doctors to a tobacco helpline (1-800-QUIT NOW), which is available to all state residents.
While ceremonial use of tobacco is an important tradition for a number of Indian tribes in the state, tribal and state health officials say there is a distinction between ceremonial use and addiction to “commercial” tobacco.
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state.