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Native Cigarettes

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A small, dark factory on the edge of Kahnawake Mohawk territory produces a controversial new lifeblood of the region: native cigarettes. Here, a worker feeds pungent, raw tobacco into a noisy machine that churns out what outside authorities call contraband and locals consider a vital extension of their inherent right to sovereignty.

The business of native cigarettes is booming on reservations, and it is helping some families survive. But it is also harming people. Smoking leads to lung cancer, heart disease and other illnesses. And secondhand smoke harms children and family members, too. The high rates of smoking among American Indian and Alaska Native adults have long frustrated government officials, researchers and others who try to reduce the health risks.

Exploring Native Cigarettes: Brands, Availability, and Cultural Significance

In the past, tobacco companies marketed to tribal communities by emphasizing cultural connections to the plant—and by offering to help with economic development. Internal tobacco company documents suggest that the strategy may have also been designed to encourage Natives’ support for their corporate products.

Multiple past studies have shown that, compared to whites, Native Americans have higher rates of cigarette use and more tobacco-related diseases. The higher rates have led to speculation that Natives are more prone to addiction than other consumers and have spurred calls for the federal government to step in. But research shows that a number of factors contribute to the high rates of tobacco use among American Indian and Alaska Natives, including cultural misrepresentations about the role of tobacco in traditional practices.


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