Overview of major drugs

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What is tobacco?

Tobacco is a plant related to the potato and nightshade group (Nicotiana tabacum). Its leaves are prepared by drying them. People smoke, chew or inhale the dried leaves.

Chemicals in tobacco

Cigarettes contain over 4 000 chemicals including tar, nicotine, carbon monoxide, radioactive compounds, irritant substances (for example, hydrogen cyanide, acetone, ammonia, arsenic, phenol, naphthalene). The main ones that cause problems are tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide.



Carbon monoxide

There is no safe level of tobacco use

Effects of smoking tobacco

Note: throughout this resource the term 'smoking tobacco' is used. Health professionals need to be aware that 'smoking' can mean something different to Aboriginal people. It may refer to ceremonial business of smoking a place or person to cleanse them.

The health effects of smoking tobacco are different depending on a number of factors, including how the tobacco is smoked, how much tar it contains, how much nicotine it contains and so forth. Many people who smoke tobacco as cigarettes make an effort to switch to low tar, low nicotine cigarettes. There is no evidence yet that smoking low tar, low nicotine cigarettes will reduce the risk of illness.

Short-term effects of smoking tobacco

Note: people chewing tobacco will experience similar short-term drug effects from the nicotine absorbed through the lining of their mouths.

Long-term health effects of smoking tobacco

Smoking tobacco particularly damages the respiratory and the circulatory systems. Regular use results in diseases that cause death or severe disability.

body smoking.gif (163143 bytes)

point.gif (93 bytes) For a complete list of the effects of smoking see Winstanley et al (1995)

Effects of smoking when pregnant

Chemicals from the tobacco smoke pass through the mother's blood to the baby through the placenta and reduce the oxygen and blood flow to the baby. Smoking tobacco during pregnancy or being exposed to tobacco smoke increases the chances that the baby will weigh less than normal when born and will have a smaller chest and head. There is also a greater chance of miscarriage, premature birth and complications during and after birth.

Babies born to mothers who smoked tobacco during pregnancy are more likely to get respiratory illnesses in the first few years of life. Smoking tobacco or being exposed to tobacco smoke during pregnancy is also linked to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome ('SIDS' or 'Cot Death') when a baby dies suddenly, usually while sleeping.

Passive smoking

'Passive smoking' refers to breathing in smoke from people holding burning cigarettes, cigars or pipes near you or breathing in 'mainstream' smoke exhaled by a person smoking near you. Smoke that drifts from the end of a lit cigarette contains a large number of chemical carcinogens and other toxic substances. Sometimes these amounts are 30 times higher than smoke inhaled by a smoker.

Recently, scientists have found strong evidence that passive smoking can be harmful to health. It can lead to increased bronchitis, pneumonia and other chest illnesses in children and lung cancer and other lung disease in non-smokers. Children can also show signs of slow learning and growth and behaviour changes.

Passive smoking is particularly dangerous for babies and children who have small, delicate lungs. It can also be very dangerous for adults who have asthma or an existing lung or heart problem. Several jurisdictions have enacted effective smoke-free legislation. They include South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and Western Australia.


Withdrawal from nicotine can be very unpleasant for the person. Withdrawal symptoms may include:

These symptoms can be helped by suggesting that the person use nicotine patches or chew nicotine gum (nicotine replacement therapy). Nicotine patches and gum are available over-the-counter at chemists. Nicotine patches are also available by a doctor's prescription through THS pharmacy.

Overview of tobacco smoking in remote Aboriginal communities

History of tobacco use

Long before European colonists arrived in the Northern Territory, Macassans visited the northern coast to fish. They gave as gifts or traded tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) with Arnhem Land Aboriginal people and taught them to smoke it in pipes.

Aboriginal people traditionally used two indigenous plants for their nicotine content, Duboisia hopwoodii (from which they made 'pituri') and native tobacco (Nicotiana). Both of these plants have a high nicotine content which is released by the addition of alkali ash (Watson 1983:22-23). Pituri was shared among the group, used in ceremonies and traded widely. It was valued for its powerful stimulant effect (Watson 1983:24-27).

Today, most Aboriginal people who chew tobacco use either native tobacco (also called 'bush tobacco') or loose smoking tobacco. People mix the dry, crushed material with ash and form it into 'quids' using saliva. They place the quids between the teeth and cheek. Nicotine is absorbed through the lining of the mouth (mucous membrane) (Watson 1983:19). The drug effect is similar to smoking tobacco. Chewing is restricted to around Central Australia and is practised mostly by women (Watson et al 1988:26-28). There is currently no evidence that chewing tobacco in the way it is done in Central Australia has any long-term, harmful effects on people's health.

How many people smoke tobacco?

In the last 20 years commercially made cigarettes have become widely available. Many Aboriginal people smoke tobacco, more in the Top End than in Central Australia. Cigarettes are highly valued. People often share packets of cigarettes, pouches and tins of tobacco and individual cigarettes.

Amongst Aboriginal people in the NT (Watson et al 1988:22-25), about:

In the Top End, about:

Amongst the general population in Darwin (Richards & McComb 1996):

Tobacco smoking and the Law in the NT

The Tobacco Control Act makes it an offence for anyone to sell or supply tobacco products to people under 18 years of age. The fine for doing so is up to $10 000 if found guilty. Tobacco retailers must display a sign (a Prescribed Notice) stating this information. They can be fined up to $5 000 for not displaying the sign.

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