Health Inequalities: Historical and cultural roots of tobacco use among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people


Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Hanna Neumann Building #21, The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200. Fax: (02) 6125 2789; e-mail:


Tobacco smoking has been identified as a major contributor to the high morbidity and mortality rates of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. After years of inattention, smoking cessation projects designed for Indigenous Australians are beginning to emerge. Dealing successfully with smoking cessation would be enhanced by an understanding of the long-standing historical, social and cultural antecedents to present-day usage of tobacco. This paper provides a brief account of the historical precursors to present-day patterns of tobacco use among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Historical records and mission documents, together with ethnographic accounts, suggest that Indigenous tobacco use today demonstrates strong continuity with past patterns and styles of use. These sources also reveal that Europeans deliberately exploited Aboriginal addiction to nicotine.