The Fight Against Big Tobacco’s Exploitation of Indigenous Communities

In a society where corporate power seems unchecked, here’s an uplifting story of resistance. The Pine Hill Indian Tribe is fighting back against the predatory practices of Big Tobacco. By championing their cultural smoking cessation program, they’re not only helping their community quit the dangerous habit but also standing up against an industry that’s exploited them for centuries.

Ramona Bowles, like many of her peers, started smoking when she was a teen. She smoked four packs a day. But thanks to Pine Hill’s new program, Ramona is now down to just a pack and a half. These programs aren’t just about quitting smoking; they’re about reclaiming cultural identity.

As Michelle Mitchum, Chief of the Pine Hill Indian Tribe, puts it, tobacco has a special place in indigenous history. For them, tobacco is sacred and used in ceremonies and traditions. The way the industry commercializes tobacco, exploiting its roots and turning it into a harmful addiction, is like setting religious scriptures on fire.

Unfortunately, indigenous people, along with African Americans and the youth, have been prime targets for Big Tobacco’s aggressive marketing strategies. Despite making up less than 2% of the U.S. population, Native and Indigenous communities have the highest rates of cigarette consumption.

Let’s step back for a second. Do you know where your cigarettes come from? The majority are grown in hot southern states, on farms known for inhumane labor practices and exploitation. Not just an attack on indigenous culture, tobacco has a broader legacy of colonization, cruelty, and corporate greed in the U.S.

Tobacco was America’s first cash crop, initially sown into the nation’s fabric using stolen land and enslaved labor. The early colonies even used tobacco as currency to buy ammunition! But while we might see tobacco as merely a commercial entity today, it’s integral to understand its historical and cultural significance. Forced evictions of indigenous communities in the 19th century paved the way for tobacco plantations, laying the foundation for its cultural appropriation and commercial misuse.

Fast forward, and today, groups like the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP) are working tirelessly to reconnect indigenous communities with their roots, while also shedding light on the damaging practices of the tobacco industry.

But let’s dive deeper into the dirt Big Tobacco doesn’t want you to see.

While many think smoking is the only harm from tobacco, the reality in the fields is starkly different. Those beautiful, green tobacco leaves come at a human cost. Meet Eli Porras, a worker from Mexico City, who, like many, faces what they term the “Green Monster” – Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS). It’s a nasty nicotine poisoning workers get from handling the wet tobacco leaves. Most don’t have access to medical care, living in remote areas with limited facilities.

Furthermore, many farm workers, including kids as young as 12, are vulnerable to the increasing threats of heatstroke due to rising global temperatures. With no federal standards in place, these workers are left defenseless against the whims of nature and the negligence of corporations.

For true change, experts like Thomas Arcury believe consumers have the power to make a difference. By boycotting commercial tobacco, we hit the industry where it hurts most: their pockets. After all, these companies only see green – whether it’s money or the ill-effects of their cash crop.

Advocates are demanding better conditions for these workers, and they need our help. NC Field, spearheaded by the formidable Yesenia Cuello, is one organization on the front lines. They believe that to truly address the health risks of tobacco, we must address the systemic issues like housing, income, and racism.

In conclusion, as conscious consumers, it’s high time we reconsider our choices. From understanding the roots of the tobacco industry to standing in solidarity with those exploited by it, let’s light up the movement against Big Tobacco’s unchecked power.