Tobacco — tradition vs. addition

I work in an environment that treats tobacco with respect.

  • Jul. 1, 2011 4:00 p.m.

I work in an environment that treats tobacco with respect.

You might say “why treat it with respect, when it kills 37,000 Canadians every year?”

It’s true that commercial tobacco use remains the number one preventable cause of illness and death in Canada. But traditional tobacco use is different. In aboriginal traditions, tobacco is a sacred plant. It is given to elders as a gift for their knowledge, used to heal sickness, offered to the spirits of animals when hunted, and as a thank-you to Mother Earth for her gift of plants and medicines.

Many First Nations use tobacco as a sacred plant. In the Southern Interior region, Nicotiana rustica is one of the species that has been grown for generations for cultural purposes.

Many tribes call a variety of other plants “tobacco” that are actually sage, red willow, fungus, sweetgrass, cedar or juniper.  These other plants are often mixed with tobacco.

When used for traditional purposes, tobacco is used in small amounts and is rarely inhaled. It contains nicotine, but in smaller amounts than in cigarettes or smokeless tobacco. Risk of addiction is low, and people who use it are not exposed to the 4,000 other chemicals contained in commercial tobacco smoke.

So how did we get from honouring tobacco to misusing it? How did we shift from a culture that respected the Earth’s gift, to a people that use tobacco in an addictive way and then grind it beneath our heel when we’re finished with it?

Many factors have contributed to tobacco misuse. Our residential school experiences, poverty, role-modeling, and marketing by tobacco companies have all played a part.

Recently, an elder told me he’d been given cigarettes at residential school when he turned 14. There was a special smoking room in the school for the “older” students, and it was considered a privilege and bonding experience in a stressful environment.

For these and other reasons, today aboriginal people have the highest rates of tobacco misuse of all cultures in B.C. We are addicted to tobacco and are no longer using it the way it was intended.

So how can we change this picture? First, we can draw upon the strength of our culture and our elders, and teach our children from a young age to respect tobacco and not misuse it.

We can use the tools available through the health-care system: nicotine replacement therapy, other medications, cessation groups and QuitNow Services ( We can grow our own tobacco and other plants for use in ceremonies. In all these ways, we can move back to using this sacred plant for healing and respect, and stop our dependence on commercial tobacco.

For more information visit or

Kym Howay is the Interior Health tobacco reduction co-ordinator for aboriginal communities.

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