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The difference between commercial tobacco and sacred tobacco

Tobacco has a central role in many indigenous communities, making it paramount to distinguish its sacred use from commercial use.

Sacred tobacco has been used by American Indian nations for centuries, in a variety of natural products that differ across regions and tribes. Sacred tobacco (also called traditional tobacco) does not contain additives, is not manufactured or marketed by the tobacco industry, and does not pose the same threats to public health and the environment that commercial tobacco does.

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Sacred tobacco

The tobacco plant is considered a sacred gift by many American Indian communities, who use it for spiritual and medicinal purposes. It's important to note that American Indian populations are diverse and consist of numerous tribes and nations, each with a unique history and relationship with tobacco. While methods and ingredients differ across communities, sacred tobacco is often carefully hand-prepared and offered respectfully for prayer, healing, and ceremony. When used in ceremony or for medicinal purposes, sacred tobacco is not associated with addiction or adverse health impacts.

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Commercial tobacco

Commercial tobacco is mass-produced, sold for profit, and contains added chemicals. Commercial tobacco is manufactured by companies for use in cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, pipe tobacco, cigars, hookah, and other products. Nicotine is the primary addictive substance in commercial tobacco. Commercial tobacco is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which gives the FDA the authority to regulate the manufacture, distribution, and advertising of commercial tobacco products.

Policies to combat commercial tobacco use in indigenous communities

American Indians and Alaska Natives use commercial tobacco more than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. While American Indian communities have a rich history of sacred tobacco practices (Alaska Natives do not have a history of using tobacco for ceremonial or traditional practices but were introduced to the product by western cultures) they have also been hit hard by the commercial tobacco industry. To combat this, indigenous community groups and public health programs joined together to create a blueprint for reducing commercial tobacco use in indigenous communities.

Since tobacco plays a central role in the traditions of many indigenous communities, commercial tobacco cessation and prevention programs are most effective when they embrace this history and reclaim tradition.

A report by Keep it Sacred, a national network of tribal organizations and health programs working to decrease commercial tobacco use among American Indians and Alaska Natives, outlines several effective grassroots public health efforts that have been successful. Common characteristics of these programs include honoring cultural traditions, amplifying indigenous voices, leveraging youth and elder leadership, and redefining best practices to include indigenous wisdom. The report also offers recommendations for local, state, federal, and private funders and foundations that are working or interested in working with indigenous communities.

For more information on patterns of use, industry targeting, and health consequences of commercial tobacco use in American Indian and Alaska Native communities, download our fact sheet.