Smoking rates among Indigenous youth are declining


Indigenous youth have higher risk factors for tobacco use than the general population, though data from tobacco prevention and cessation programs show that these initiatives are making a difference.

“The good news is that the smoking rates among Indigenous youth are decreasing,” said Kellie Milani, Youth Development Specialist for the Northwest Tobacco Control Area Network (TCAN).

Her catchment area covers roughly the same area as the North West LHIN, with the Thunder Bay District Health Unit as the coordinating health unit.

“Definitely the evidence shows that Indigenous youth smoke at a higher rate – and Indigenous adults also smoke at a higher rate – than non-Indigenous persons. Indigenous youth also have an earlier age of initiation, so that’s something that’s on our radar as well,” Milani said. “The use of commercial tobacco is more socially accepted.”

Other increased risk factors include social modelling and easier access to tobacco, which have been shown to be risk factors for youth tobacco use in general.  One of the ways TCAN combats youth tobacco use is through prevention programs.

“The backbone of our tobacco prevention programming is called TRYPS, which is Tobacco Reduction in Youth Partnerships,” Milani said. “It’s a program open to anybody who has a need to reduce tobacco use with the youth that they work with.”

These organizations include schools, community programs, mental health programs, youth justice agencies, and other groups in contact with youth.

What makes the program most useful is that it can be customized to the youth demographic they are working with. For example, programs targeting Indigenous youth might include discussions about traditional tobacco, teachings from an elder, and integration of cultural teachings such as creating ceremonial tobacco bags, Milani said.

“We call out to anybody who works with youth in the community and say that we can provide you with some planning support, evaluation support, education support, and some financial support as well,” she said. This financial support has proven to be an incentive for organizations working with youth.

Programs can be modified to incorporate the interests of any particular group of youths such as art or music. “What really makes a program successful is if youth are engaged in the planning of it,” Milani said.

Milani’s role is to support organizations as they adapt TRYPS programming to ensure there are tobacco reduction outcomes.

Although the TRYPS program was launched in 2013, there have been similar programs in the past that have evolved into the current programming. Milani said that the flexible nature of TRYPS has made it more attractive, and it’s growing in popularity through word of mouth.

All eight of the programs that were completed in 2018 reached Indigenous youth including youth within First Nations and at schools. Of the almost 1,300 youth reached by programming last year, an estimated 73 per cent were Indigenous. Ninety per cent of all participants reported an increase in knowledge in tobacco-related topics, which is a prevention indicator. Further, 73 per cent of participants reported an improved anti-tobacco attitude.

One of the groups TCAN works with is the Outland Youth Employment Program (OYEP), a training and employment program aimed specifically at Indigenous youth. OYEP integrates tobacco prevention and cessation programming including a smoke-free challenge supported by the TRYPS initiative. Programming includes discussions about tobacco use with an emphasis on the dangers of smoking in the bush. After the training program finished, four youth reported quitting smoking and others showed indications that they had moved towards quitting. Outland reported that in past years, maybe one person would quit smoking.

“It shows that (TRYPS provided) a significant increase… it does make an impact,” Milani said.

There are other programs making a difference as well, Milani said. Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School (DFC) in Thunder Bay uses the Aboriginal Tobacco Program from Cancer Care Ontario in partnership with TCAN staff. DFC, which provides schooling for Indigenous students primarily from First Nations in the region, runs an annual smoke-free challenge. Consistently 50 to 70 per cent of the school population registers during National Non-Smoking Week. In February 2018, three students quit and 12 students smoked less.

“I’m still surprised every year about the number of youth who register for it,” Milani said.

Milani said that cannabis legalization will likely complicate tobacco prevention messaging. One area that is immediately noticeable is the messaging around vaping.

“In the lower-risk use guidelines, it indicates that vaping is a safer way to consume cannabis, whereas in tobacco prevention, we want to discourage vaping amongst youth,” she said.

Filed in: Education, First Nations

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