August 7, 2010 - The 10-year-old territory has the highest rate of smoking in the country: 53 percent of people over the age of 12 surveyed by Statistics Canada reported lighting up daily - even though cigarettes here can cost $16 a pack.
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Nunavut's smoking rate is more than double the national average (22 percent) and is considerably higher than those in the Northwest Territories (36 percent) and Yukon (30 percent).
Among Nunavut's Inuit, 85 percent of the territory's population, the rates are even worse. The 2006 Aboriginal Peoples Survey found that 64 percent of the territory's Inuit over the age of 15 light up daily; another eight per cent called themselves occasional smokers.
"The levels here are exceptionally high compared to the rest of the country," says Dr. Geraldine Osborne, Nunavut's deputy chief medical officer of health, who has worked in the territory since 2001.
The tobacco problem is shared by Inuit across Canada and by many First Nations communities.
The territory already has a tough set of anti-smoking laws. In 2004, Nunavut's Tobacco Control Act made the territory one of the first jurisdictions to ban smoking in public places, including bars. The law made it illegal to sell cigarettes to anyone under 19; banned cigarette vending machines; and eliminated most tobacco retail displays.
Since 2000, the government has also run a series of public education campaigns that have warned parents to smoke outdoors, away from their children. The latest tobacco control strategy targets youth and pregnant women.
Despite the efforts, Nunavut's smoking rate is going down "very slowly," says Osborne. "I'm realistic. Things aren't going to change overnight," she says. "Particularly in public health."
A pack-a-day habit in the North can cost $6,000 a year, a price magnified in families with three or four smokers. "It's taking money out of their food budgets," says Dr. Ron Aspinall, a family physician who works in the Nunavut hamlet of Rankin Inlet. The territorial government spends almost one-quarter of its $1.2 billion annual budget on health care. (About $1 billion of the budget comes from federal transfers.)
The federal government's renewed interest in the North - fuelled by a desire to secure Canada's claim to the Arctic and its resources - has brought the region's health and social problems into sharper focus. Canada also has an Inuk - former Nunavut MLA Leona Aglukkaq - serving as the federal health minister. She understands the problem, Curley says, and earlier this year she announced $734,000 will be spent over two years to encourage aboriginal youth to quit smoking. One program will train young people in Nunavut to educate their peers about the dangers of smoking; another offers prizes to young aboriginals who take part in a smoking-cessation challenge.
Reference: Doctors call Nunavut's alarming smoking rates 'a health crisis' by Andrew Duffy, Ottawa Citizen, VancouverSun.com, 8/6/2010.