The worst poison of all


If Ed Picco does nothing else in what’s left of his tenure as Nunavut’s health minister, he will deserve to be remembered for having drawn attention to Nunavut’s deadliest environmental poison.

We’re not talking about PCB, or lindane, or cesium-137, all of which have been found in Arctic country food, and at justifiably worrisome levels. We’re talking about the worst Arctic poison of them all — tobacco.

The rate of tobacco addiction in Nunavut is two and half times the Canadian average. A 1996 survey done by the NWT’s Department of Health showed that in Nunavut, nearly two-thirds of all adults smoke. Among Inuit adults, the ratio of smokers to non-smokers is even higher: about seven out of every 10 adults.

A 1993 Health Canada survey found that 68 per cent of Inuit age 15-19 smoked, compared to only 30 per cent for non-aboriginal youth. Health Canada also found in 1993 that a whopping 77 per cent of Inuit aged 25-44 are currently addicted to cigarettes. In the rest of Canada, only about 30 per cent of people 15 years of age and older still smoke.

But even at those levels, premature death caused by smoking is considered to be Canada’s bigggest public health problem. In 1991, an estimated 45,000 Canadians died of smoking-related causes.

Nunavut residents know all about that. Lung cancer, a hideous disease that inflicts a painful, lingering death on its victims, now runs amok in our territory. Fatal lung cancer among Inuit men is three times the Canadian average. Among Inuit women, fatal lung cancer rates are five times the Canadian average.

Lung cancer is a disease that smokers inflict upon themselves. Smokers also inflict dangerous, and often fatal diseases upon non-smokers — especially upon their own children.

For example:

* Cadmium, carbon monoxide and nicotine, all of which are found in cigarettes, are considered to be “reproductive toxicants” — or harmful to unborn children in their mother’s wombs;
* Smoking by parents is a leading cause of hearing loss in children. Common middle-ear infections, such as otitis media, are aggravated by exposure to second-hand smoke;
* Second-hand smoke is believed to be one of the factors contributing to the high rate of crib death in Nunavut;
* Exposure to second-hand smoke makes it more likely for children to develop asthma, respiratory infections and attention deficit disorder;
* A non-smoker living with a smoker has a 30 per cent greater chance of getting cancer;
* People who work in bars or restaurants where smoking is permitted are 50 per cent more likely to develop lung cancer.

Smoking also costs money, and lots of it. Medical travel costs created by smoking-related disease are at least partly responsible for the highly-publicized deficits run up each year by Nunavut’s now-defunct health boards. RSV

What’s worse, it’s not unusual to find children as young as six or seven smoking cigarettes in public.

This week, Ed Picco announced that he has been able to squeeze $1.8 million out of his 2000-2001 budget for new spending on anti-smoking programs in Nunavut. Any Nunavut politician capable of opposing that deserves to be thrown out of office — and fast. JB

* Read “The Killer who lives at home,” a special report about smoking by Dwane Wilkin, published in the May 27, 1998 edition of Nunatsiaq News.

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