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Fact Sheet - Aboriginal Smokers




Statistics on the prevalence of smoking in the Aboriginal population have been fairly scarce until recently. This is partly due to the fact that it is only in recent years that the Australian Bureau of Statistics has included Aboriginality as a separate category in its surveys. It also reflects a lack of research on the health status of Aborigines generally. However, there have been several recent studies undertaken in Victoria and New South Wales, which indicate that smoking prevalence, in some Aboriginal communities at least, is two to three times greater than in the non-Aboriginal community.


In this fact sheet, "Aborigines" is used to denote anyone of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Island descent who identifies as such and is accepted as such by the community in which he or she lives.


The 1989-90 National Health Survey on Smoking found that 49.7% of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders were smokers compared with 28.2% of the non-Aboriginal population. Although the younger age structure of the Aboriginal population accounted for some of the difference (there are fewer Aborigines aged over 60 than non-Aborigines due to higher mortality rates), the proportion of Aborigines who smoked was higher in all age groups, except in the age group 65 years and over. Compared with the non-Aboriginal population, where 23.2% of smokers had quit smoking, on 18.1% of Aborigines had quit. Similarly, only 32.2% of Aborigines had never smoked compared with 48.5% of non-Aborigines.


There have been a number of smaller studies which indicate the prevalence of smoking in the Aboriginal population is much higher than indicated by the ABS statistics.


South Eastern Australia

One of the most recent studies was carried out in rural Victoria which compared Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people living in two separate towns. They found that:

  • of Aborigines aged 13 - 54 were current smokers, compared with only 24.1% of non-Aborigines in the same age group;

  • of Aboriginal males 13 - 17 were smokers, compared with only 8% of non-Aboriginal males in the same age group;

  • In contrast to other studies, 56% of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal females aged 13 - 17 in this study were smokers;

  • The highest rates of smoking in the Aboriginal group occurred in the 25 - 44 year age group, where 75% of both male and female Aborigines were current smokers.

Orana and Far Western NSW

Similar results were obtained from a study of smoking in Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal inhabitants of Wilcannia in 1989:

  • of Aboriginal males and 68.7% of Aboriginal females aged 20 - 69 were current smokers;

  • This compared with approximately 40% of non-Aboriginals - male and female - in the study who were current smokers;

  • Aboriginal men have on average been smoking longer than Aborignal women in the study. They are also slightly heavier smokers;

  • The proportion of Aboriginal men smoking is declining in all age groups but the proportion of Aboriginal women smoking is increasing, particularly among younger women;

  • Tobacco-related hospital admissions for Aboriginal men in the region are more than 1.5 times the national rate;

  • A separate study of Aboriginal health in the area found that life expectancy for Aboriginal males in the region was 53 and for Aboriginal females, 65. This compared with a life expectancy of 73 and 79 years for non-Aboriginal men and women respectively. Cardiovascular disease accounts for 40% of deaths in this Aboriginal community.

Aboriginal Medical Services

  • The Adelaide Aboriginal Medical Service in a small study undertaken in 1988 found that 78% of Aboriginal males and 64% of Aboriginal females were current smokers;

  • Surveys of the Aboriginal community in the Campbelltown area (Sydney) by the Tharawal Aboriginal Medical Service have found approximately 60% of Aboriginal men and women smoke.


In these studies, cigarettes were the favoured form of tobacco consumption.


Much lower quit rates were found in the Aboriginal population, reflecting the higher current smoking rates:

  • In the South Eastern Australia study, only 12% of Aboriginal male smokers had quit, compared with 32% of non-Aboriginal males. Only 13% of Aboriginal women smokers had quit, compared with 17% of non-Aboriginal women.

  • In the Orana and Far West study, less than 10% of Aboriginal women and about 12% of Aboriginal men had quit, about half the rate for the non-Aboriginal community.


There are conflicting reports on the influence of employment on smoking habits:

In the South Eastern Australia study, when analysis was restricted to males who did not receive a pension/benefit (i.e. who were employed), the difference between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal smoking prevalence was far smaller for males (39% and 24% respectively). For women, there was no difference in rates between the two groups.

In the Orana and Far West study, no significant difference in smoking prevalence was found between those who were employed and those who were unemployed.


Aboriginal people in these studies were well aware of the importance of tobacco smoking as one of the important causes of ill-health in their community:

In the South Eastern Australia study, 62% of males and 52% of females saw alcohol, tobacco and other drugs as a major problem in their community;

In the Wilcannia study, approximately 50% of Aboriginal smokers indicated a desire to quit smoking.


Respiratory and cardiovascular diseases are two of the biggest killers in the Aboriginal community. Smoking is a major preventable risk factor for both. The prevalence of these diseases in the Aboriginal population is known to be well above that in the non-Aboriginal community:

  • A study of Aborigines in Western NSW found that compared to non-Aborigines, Aborigines face up to 13 times the risk of cardiovascular disease;
  • The same study found that for those aged 25 - 44, the risk is greater - up to 40 times that for the non-Aboriginal population;
  • The National Aboriginal Health Working Party found that the mortality rate for respiratory diseases is more than four times that for non-Aborigines;
  • The same group found that the mortality rate for lung cancer is twice that for non-Aborigines.

    The Non-Smokers' Movement of Australia Inc, Box K860, Haymarket NSW 1240.  
This page was last updated on 21st April, 2006, previously 18/8/04 and 20/2/1999. Many thanks to a supporter who supplied this web page from his giant database of quotations.
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