By Doug Kelly, FNHC Chair
First Nations communities rarely agree on anything. But one thing we do agree on is that we want good health for ourselves, our loved ones, and our land. And we know that these are all inextricably interconnected. As a First Nations leader, I’d like to share some thoughts on this day, World Environmental Health Day, about what leadership and community members can do to improve our health, the health of our loved ones, and the health of our communities and environments.
Although there are many important areas to tackle, I’ll stick to just one in this message: how we can mitigate the harmful effects of smoking (including vaping) and second-hand smoke in our communities. The facts are scary. Even one cigarette butt in a liter of water can kill a fish in a period of 96 hours. Over 4,000 chemicals are introduced to the immediate environment from discarded butts via cigarette tar and mainstream smoke, posing a direct threat and sometimes death to fish and other marine life as well as birds. Improperly discarded cigarettes are responsible for devastating forest fires every year, including in BC. Cigarette butts are not biodegradable, and they can take up to 10 years to disintegrate. Approximately one tree is destroyed for every 300 cigarettes made. And so on.
Provincial laws don’t apply on reserve – and of course, nor should they – so it’s up to us as leaders and community members to take action. So what can we do, exactly? Well, to begin with, our elected band councils have the legal authority to pass bylaws on our reserves that protect the health of community members. First Nations leadership can ensure enforcement of provincial laws such as the Tobacco and Vapour Control Act, which limits sales to adults aged 19 and above, restricts retail displays targeting youth, and more.
Leadership can also impose taxes on tobacco products. Since 1998, First Nations communities have had the power to enact bylaws imposing our own sales tax on reserves for fuel, tobacco products and alcoholic beverages. Over 100 studies in the US have concluded that this is one of the most effective ways to decrease smoking rates in any community. Tsleil Waututh and at least 20 other First Nations communities in BC are doing this. They are using the added revenue from the taxes to fund programs, initiatives and projects in their communities such as building a new health centre, offering health education, providing rebates to community members, or funding arts and culture. In Tsleil Waututh, one must have status to be able to purchase commercial or traditional tobacco, and there is also a maximum amount of tobacco that each individual can purchase per month.
Another thing First Nations leadership can do is get involved with educational campaigns that inform First Nations people about the dangers of smoking and second-hand smoke, not just to themselves and others but to their environments. In the Fraser Salish region, for example, we have made improving environmental health a priority and are creating an educational campaign that will address the effects of throwing cigarette butts anywhere instead of disposing of them properly. This campaign is intended to help First Nations smokers learn more not only about the poisonous substances in the cigarettes they are smoking, but about what discarded butts are doing to the people around them, the environment, animals and plants.
Because we all care about our health and the health of our environment, I think we can all agree that smoking is something we need to think about very seriously. Our communities are facing enough problems from external factors and historical factors — let’s agree to try and keep out or reduce what we allow in our communities, including harmful habits like smoking. Let’s commit to loving ourselves, our communities and our environment enough to eliminate smoking from our lives.