While cancer rates for non-Aboriginal people in Canada are decreasing, rates among Aboriginal people are on the rise. There is a direct link between the use of commercial tobacco and increasing cancer rates, especially lung cancer. According to Health Canada, the rate of smoking among First Nations, Inuit and Métis is more than triple that of the general population.
Working with Cancer Care Ontario’s (CCO) Aboriginal Tobacco Program, Jeff Werner is part of a team that hopes to reverse that trend. CCO’s Aboriginal Tobacco Program was established to reduce high smoking rates in First Nations communities, and ultimately reduce cancer rates in those communities through programs focused on prevention, cessation, denormalization, and protection.
As CCO’s Tobacco-Wise Lead for Northern Ontario, located at Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre (TBRHSC), Jeff Werner travels to communities across Northern Ontario and works directly with Band Council, community members and health care providers to create smoking cessation initiatives and programs specific to each community’s needs and resources. He also facilitates smoking cessation workshops for community members and health care providers, as well as awareness campaigns for young people about the hazards of using commercial tobacco.
“We know that smoking rates are higher in Northwestern Ontario than in the rest of the province and, in a lot of the communities I visit, smoking rates are even higher,” says Werner.
Living in isolated communities often means limited access to tobacco cessation resources, education and health care services.
The term ‘tobacco-wise’ refers to knowing the difference between traditional and commercial tobacco as well as the health risks of using commercial tobacco. Traditional tobacco is considered a gift from the creator, unlike cigarettes or chew tobacco which is sold for profit. It has been used by Aboriginal people for thousands of years in prayers, ceremonies, and other sacred practices. “Every community has its own practices, but generally traditional tobacco is unprocessed, is not intended to be inhaled deeply into the lungs, and is used in ceremonies as an offering,” says Werner.
Working with community leaders and health care providers to facilitate tobacco cessation programs, he has been trained to provide brief one-on-one tobacco cessation intervention. And although TBRHSC has a smoke-free grounds policy in place, Werner says that is not his primary motivation for approaching people he encounters smoking at TBRHSC.
“I like talking to people and I’m concerned about their health,” says Werner. “I want to help people have a long, happy, healthy life. I let them know who I am and what I do and I ask if they’re interested in quitting. Rarely do I meet someone who is not interested. The majority say they have wanted to quit for a long time.”
While most people who smoke acknowledge that tobacco is bad for them, Werner says they don’t realize just how bad it is. “Half of all smokers will die of a tobacco-related illness, but it also affects everyday quality of life. People who quit generally have more energy, sleep better, are happier, and find that food tastes better. There are short and long-term benefits of quitting”
If someone expresses an interest in quitting, Werner refers them to the Smokers’ Helpline and encourages them to speak with their health care provider about the many supports and resources available. “Going it alone (without aides and/or counseling) has a low success rate, but that is how most people try to quit,” he says. “The good news is that it can be done.”