Canada's North is facing a health crisis, as skyrocketing cancer rates amongst its Indigenous peoples are far and away the highest in the world, according to a new international study.
That result is, in part, due a total failure of the all levels of government to curb smoking in the North.
The report found that the smoking rate amongst Canada's Innu and Inuit was 63 per cent. That's a number that towers over the national Canadian smoking rate of around 18 per cent. That's just part of the problem. Recently, researchers found that 9 of 10 pregnant women in Nunavut smoke.
By comparison, the national smoking rate in the 1950s was 68.9 per cent for men and 38.2 per cent for women, prior to the boom of tobacco regulation that pushed down those rates in most of the West.
That sky-high smoking rate correspond to a spike in lung cancer rates, with 300 people receiving a lung cancer diagnosis in Nunavut between 2000 and 2009 — giving the 30,000-person territory a rate that is double that of Greenland, which had the next-highest prevalence of lung cancer of those areas studied in the report..
The international study, which studied health outcomes for Inuit in the Arctic Circle — which includes parts of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, and the United States — found that cancer rates all around the Arctic Circle were disproportionately high. It, however, found that problem especially prevalent in Canada, where those numbers have been climbing since 1989.
Inuit and Innu are the Indigenous people to Canada's North, including its three northern territories, Labrador, and Nunavik.
According to Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS), the lack of tobacco regulation among Indigenous communities has been a huge contributor to the popularity of smoking, noting that the high rates of lung cancer have been "a cause for concern" for some time.
That leaves blame at the feet of the territorial governments — in Nunavut, for example, territorial taxes on smoking exist, but flavored tobacco is still legal.
Across Canada's provinces, cigarette prices generally stay the same — $8 to $10 CAD per pack — but can be significantly higher in the North. Cunningham told VICE News that one of the main problems in Northern Canada is that contraband cigarettes are easily obtainable and dodge hard-hitting tobacco taxes.
When contacted by VICE News for comment, a spokesperson for Health Canada said the agency is aware of the issue and is taking steps to lower tobacco use in Indigenous communities.
The spokesperson pointed to the $22 million the government has been pegged to spend between 2012 and 2017 on combating non-ceremonial tobacco use in Indigenous communities. Among working with Indigenous communities to find a compromise on decreasing smoking rates, the plan includes the expansion of tobacco regulation and educational initiatives.
Ceremonial use of tobacco is important part of Indigenous culture — for some Aboriginal peoples — that dates back to pre-colonial days as a spiritual practice. Ceremonial use of tobacco, however, was not common in Nunavut. Cunningham notes that while it's hard to determine if ceremonial smoking has reinforced recreational usage of tobacco, smoking culture is generally more accepted in Indigenous communities.
The crisis has motivated Nunavut to act. The territorial government recently committed $2.5 million to combatting smoking.
Statistics Canada has looked at this trend before, with their last report finding that 21 percent of all Inuit people in Canada's arctic died from lung cancer or respiratory-related diseases. The overall life expectancy of Indigenous people is 10 years shorter than the Canadian average of 80.6 years.
The troubling lung cancer statistics are just a part of the problem. Last year, a study revealed that lung cancer and cervical cancer was highly common among all Indigenous populations in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States.
Follow Jake Kivanc on Twitter: @KivancJake
*An earlier version of this story misidentified the price of tobacco in Nunavut, and the government's annual budget for tackling smoking. The story has been corrected.