Native American Tribes and Smoking
April 14, 2006 12:28 PM   Subscribe

Is there evidence of Native American tribes suffering health effects from smoking tobacco?

I was talking with some of my buddies about the effects of smoking, and one of them suggested that it was largely cultural (i.e. people in our society are more stressed out, and that makes them smoke more). Anyway, as supporting evidence, he said that there is no evidence of Native Americans suffering any of the health effects of smoking like lung cancer prior to being absorbed by western civilization. That didn't sound quite right to me. Does anyone know if this is true, or at least where I could find more information about it?
posted by magodesky to Health & Fitness (16 answers total)
I don't think Native Americans, before the white man arrived, were exactly out hunting with cigs dangling from their mouths.

We're obviously able to deal with some smoke. It's different when you're getting a fresh dose of smoke and tar every hour. That wears the lungs down and causes emphysema and cancer.

Also, modern tobacco has been carefully cultivated for many generations to be stronger and more addictive. The stuff in modern cigarettes probably doesn't have much relation to what the Native Americans smoked.
posted by Malor at 12:36 PM on April 14, 2006

Well, I'd be interested to see how your friend could possibly prove that. What does he mean "absorbed" by Western civilization? Placed on reservations? Contacted by Europeans? In either case, if by "no evidence" he means no scientific epidemiological studies of the effects of smoking, well, no shit there's no evidence. But in the absence of evidence to the contrary, why would we assume that all we know about how tobacco smoke affects human health didn't hold true for Native Americans a few hundred years ago? Can your friend explain what it is about "absorption by Western civilization" that makes tobacco smoke more harmful?

By the way, your friend seems to be making two different claims: 1) stress makes people smoke more, which is unhealthy and 2) smoking didn't used to hurt Native Americans. The first is wrong (Were we all more stressed out 40 years ago? Are Europeans more stressed than Americans?), but he could at least try to present evidence for it. The second is just stupid, and it doesn't follow logically from the first, unless he also wanted to claim that smoking was only harmful if you were simultaneously stressed-out. Which, again, would be stupid.
posted by Dasein at 12:41 PM on April 14, 2006

I recall reading that eskimos from centuries past whose frozen carcasses were dug up from the ice were discovered to have blackened lungs, it is assumed as a result of spending most of their lives hunched in tiny dwellings dominated by smokey fires. The eskimos' lungs were said to resemble those of modern day smokers. Not an answer to your question, but it may lead somewhere if you follow it up...
posted by Faze at 12:42 PM on April 14, 2006

Keep in mind that Indian tobacco was a very different strain of the plant than the Brazilian variety used today. North American tobacco was very harsh and used largely for ceremonial purposes. When Brazilian tobacco is introduced to Indians via the fur trade, they seem to experience the same sort of mania for tobacco that struck Europe at the same time.
posted by LarryC at 12:48 PM on April 14, 2006

Anyway, as supporting evidence, he said that there is no evidence of Native Americans suffering any of the health effects of smoking like lung cancer prior to being absorbed by western civilization

Of course theres no evidence, they didn't keep written records and they probably didn't even know what lung cancer was.

Plus, their lifespan was probably much, much shorter anyway, to the point where they would be dead by the time they got lung cancer. That’s like those people claming that fatty foods are OK for you, because in the olden days, people didn't die from heart disease that much. Well duh, because they were all busy dying of polio and cholera and black lung and shit.

You have to get to a certain point of medical sophistication before people even live long enough to have these problems.
posted by delmoi at 12:52 PM on April 14, 2006

Well, I should point out that the person I was talking to has a degree in anthropology and is very well-versed in ethnographic and historical literature. The point he was making was based on the fact that ethnographers would have mentioned something about, say, the chief having a bad cough or something of that nature. And, according to him, there's not much like that.

Also, as I understand it, the life expectancy for a Native American then wasn't that much shorter than our own--I think it was something like 50-60 years. So there was plenty of time for symptoms to show up.

Of course, I know that today's tobacco is a very different animal, thanks to the wonders of modern chemistry. But I was under the impression that smoking even pure tobacco was unhealthy and that this was something that many Native Americans did regularly. Am I off in that assessment?

And then, should the question then be simply about whether the main factor in the unhealthy effects of smoking are cultural? And how would one go about proving that?
posted by magodesky at 1:17 PM on April 14, 2006

I don't exactly understand what you mean by the main effects of tobacco being cultural. If you smoke a pack a day, no matter what culture you're part of, you will suffer ill effects that can greatly increase your risks of suffering from emphysema and lung cancer.

It's my understanding that Native Americans used tobacco mostly for ceremonial purposes, and thus would not be smoking the equivalent of a pack a day. If you smoke a cigarette every week or so, even if it's the evil western kind, it's unlikely that you'll suffer from too many ill effects. Maybe that's what your friend was talking about?
posted by sid at 1:33 PM on April 14, 2006

"Ethnographer" is late 19th-century term, there were no ethnographers when native peoples and Europeans first collided. There are lots of accounts, some with more ethnographic detail than others. And there was no such word as cancer! A lot of diseases tended to get lumped together by symptom. An Indian with a bad cough could have TB, lung cancer, or a dozen other things. And the smokey winter dwellings gave folks plenty of cause to cough. Another point, just to further muddy the waters, is that for most of the encounter with Europeans, Indians were suffering a terrible mortality from various imported diseases. So of course there isn't any evidence of high rates of lung cancer before contact--how could there be? But you'd be foolish to argue anything from this absence of evidence.
posted by LarryC at 2:00 PM on April 14, 2006

It's pretty obvious just from looking at the 20th Century that cancer deaths spike when other deaths drop off. Everybody's got to die of something.

There's another obvious difference -- Americans today have adequate, even excessive, supplies of many, many things. Our technology and economy guarantee that.

I think it's safe to say that they didn't smoke as much as today's smoker because tobacco was a lot harder to come by. If nothing else, I think tobacco's use in ceremonial occasions indicates there was a limited supply.
posted by dagnyscott at 2:11 PM on April 14, 2006

Okay, I guess I found the answer right in Wikipedia:

At extremely high doses, tobacco becomes hallucinogenic; accordingly, Native Americans generally did not use the drug recreationally. Rather, it was often consumed in extraordinarily high quantities and used as an entheogen; generally, this was done only by experienced shamans or medicine men.

So it looks like those who said that they didn't smoke it often enough to suffer any of the health effects were right.

But then, that doesn't seem to have to do with the comparative levels of stress across cultures as it does with the fact that they just didn't think to use it as a recreational drug. So then, I don't know that there's really any way to prove that people in modern society smoke more because they're more stressed. There are too many other variables.
posted by magodesky at 2:24 PM on April 14, 2006

I'm guessing those who've responded so far have little actual smoking experience. The question should really begin with, How did Native Americans actually use the tobacco in their peace pipes? Did they inhale?

Most (tobacco) pipe smokers do not. But most cigarette smokers do. Without inhaling, the occasional lip or mouth cancer manifests, but the general health effects are trivial in comparison with the inhalers.

(This is the point where those with adverse reactions to Second-Hand Smoke chime in.)

posted by Rash at 2:43 PM on April 14, 2006

My impression is that the Native Americans had a set of social customs built up around tobacco, that there were correct ways to use and treat it. It was treated like communion wine, not cheap malt liquor.

When tobacco came over to the Europeans, the tobacco customs did not come with it. The result? We abuse it to the point where it kills us. When alcohol first went over to the Native Americans the European habits for using it did not go over with the booze, and the Indians had a terrible time with drinking.
posted by Ken McE at 4:05 PM on April 14, 2006

Interestingly, the epidemiology of pipe and cigar tobacco is much less clear-cut on the lung cancer issue than the epidemiology about the modern, processed, highly engineered nicotine delivery vehicles called cigarettes.

Most studies show no significant increase in lung cancer in users of either; people who smoked more than 10 cigars a day had a slightly higher incidence of oral cancers.

I do not believe I know of any studies of ritually-grown, ritually-used tobacco among Native Americans.
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:18 PM on April 14, 2006

What Faze and delmoi pointed out.

In grade 5, we had to go to an "Outdoor School" for a week. Our school got to stay at a Haida lodge.

Smokey, smokey, smokey. My snot (when I blew my nose) was very very dark - the only other time I could remember having snot with that much "tar" and other particulates in it were multi-day, er, "hotboxing" sessions. Tobacco use likely contributed very little to increased incidences of lung cancer.

Again, as delmoi pointed out - the average lifespan was significantly shorter such that things like lung cancer was probably very rare.

Hmm, has there been any (anecdotal?) retrospective study of lung cancer in, say, inhabitants of London during the peak of the industrial revolution?
posted by PurplePorpoise at 5:57 PM on April 14, 2006

I can't see how you would seperate out the effects of occasional ceremonial tobacco use from the effects of living in a chimney-less dwelling heated by an open fire. Your friends theory sounds totally unsubstantiated to me.
posted by fshgrl at 7:00 PM on April 14, 2006

OT, sorry.

Smokey, smokey, smokey. My snot (when I blew my nose) was very very dark... inhabitants of London during the peak of the industrial revolution?

I can tell you that myself, and a number of compatriots, plus Kiwis and S'Africans would freak out over exactly that issue after moving to London in the 90's.
posted by pompomtom at 7:12 AM on March 11, 2007

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