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Indigenous Health

Traditional tobacco and commercial tobacco

​"In my heart, the tobacco, once it’s lit, the smoke is going to take my message to the Creator for whatever my vows are."
—Elder Genevieve Bruised Head


What is traditional tobacco?

To Indigenous people, traditional tobacco is a sacred plant. It is a gift from the Creator. It’s important to honour the role tobacco plays in many Indigenous cultures.

Traditional tobacco:

  • may be burned to carry prayers to the spirit world
  • is used in medicines and has healing properties
  • may be given as an offering to Mother Earth
  • can be given as a gift to an elder (This is a symbol of gratitude, respect, and the elder’s commitment to help you, often with prayers and spiritual guidance.)

What is commercial tobacco?

Commercial tobacco—such as cigarettes and spit or smokeless tobacco—is different from traditional tobacco. Harmful chemicals like nicotine have been added to make it more addictive. Over time, using commercial tobacco products is dangerous for your health.

How harmful is commercial tobacco use?

Every year, more than 4,000 Albertans die from using commercial tobacco. Many more have tobacco-related illnesses.

At least half of all people who smoke will die because of their tobacco use, and over half of all First Nations people smoke. This means that more than 1 in 4 First Nations people could die early because of smoking.

Is commercial tobacco use only a problem for adults?

In Indigenous communities, children often start using commercial tobacco—such as smoking and using spit or smokeless tobacco—much younger than in other communities. Some children are as young as 7 or 8 when they start.

Recent studies show that vaping is also higher among Indigenous youth. While there’s still a lot to learn about the harms of vaping, we do know that it can damage your lungs.

How does commercial tobacco use harm others?

When you smoke or vape, you expose the people around you to second-hand and third-hand smoke or vapour.

Being exposed to second-hand smoke (smoke you blow out or that comes from the burning end of a cigarette) is harmful. It’s especially bad for babies because their lungs are still growing and developing.

Small children who live with people who smoke have a higher risk of diseases such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and middle-ear infections. They’re also more likely to have problems with coughs, colds, and ear and throat infections. First Nations have higher infant death rates, and being exposed to tobacco smoke is a major risk factor for crib death or SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).

Third-hand smoke is the smoke that stays on surfaces like clothes, walls, carpets, and furniture. Babies and young children are more at risk of harm from third-hand smoke because they breathe faster and crawl on floors. They also like to explore everything with their hands and put things into their mouths.

What are some serious health problems that commercial tobacco use can cause?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a serious lung disease linked to smoking. It’s twice as common among Indigenous people as the general Canadian population.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among First Nations people, and the most likely cause of lung cancer is smoking.

COVID-19 is an illness that can cause people to have mild to severe lung problems. If you get COVID-19, smoking and vaping ​can put you at higher risk of getting very sick.

How can traditional teachings help me quit commercial tobacco?

Quitting or cutting back on using commercial tobacco is one of the most important things you can do for your health and your family’s health. The values below are based on the Seven Grandfather Teachings. This traditional Indigenous wisdom can help you make changes towards your healthy future:

  • Honesty: Be honest with yourself about the harms of using commercial tobacco. When you smoke, vape, or use spit or smokeless tobacco, you put your health and the health of your family at risk.
  • Respect: Using commercial tobacco is not respecting the sacred place of tobacco in your culture. Giving prayer and thanks—as in traditional tobacco use—is honouring tobacco.
  • Humility: If you smoke tobacco, vape, or use spit or smokeless tobacco, you are putting your needs ahead of your family. If you smoke, your family is being exposed to second- and third-hand smoke. Your family and friends want you to live a long and healthy life.
  • Wisdom: If you would like to quit using commercial tobacco, think about the strengths you have to make a change. You don’t have to quit alone—reach out to others for help and support.
  • Truth: Telling others the truth about the differences between traditional tobacco and commercial tobacco can make a big difference in your community.
  • Love: Quitting smoking, vaping, or spit or smokeless tobacco is good for your health. Love yourself by making that change.
  • Bravery: Quitting smoking, vaping, or spit or smokeless tobacco can be hard. But you can do it.

For more information and support to quit using commercial tobacco, go to:


Dobrescu, A., Bhandari, A., Sutherland, G. & Dinh T. (2017). The Costs of Tobacco Use in Canada, 2012. The Conference Board of Canada. Report.

Koziel, Jakob. (2020). Trends in e-cigarette use among Albertan youth (2014-2017). [PowerPoint slides]. Addiction and Mental Health Lab Injury Prevention Centre. University of Alberta.

Current as of: December 16, 2020

Author: Tobacco Reduction Program, Alberta Health Services