Traditional vs. Commercial Tobacco

Traditional and commercial tobacco are different in the way that they are planted and grown, harvested, prepared, and used. Traditional tobacco is and has been used in sacred ways by American Indians for centuries. Its use differs by Tribe, with Alaska Natives generally not using traditional tobacco at all.

Commercial tobacco is produced for recreational use by companies, contains chemical additives and is linked with death and disease. It is sometimes erroneously used in place of traditional tobacco for ceremonies.

Commercial tobacco use prevention and cessation outreach among American Indians and Alaska Natives should be informed by and tailored to the Tribal community’s culture.



Commercial Tobacco

Commercial tobacco is manufactured by companies for recreational and habitual use in cigarettes, e-cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, pipe tobacco, cigars, hookahs, and other products. Commercial tobacco is mass-produced and sold for profit. It contains thousands of chemicals and produces over 7,000 chemical compounds when burned, many of which are carcinogenic, cause heart and other diseases, and premature death.1

Nicotine, the primary addictive substance contained in commercial tobacco, causes an almost immediate stimulation in the user, followed by depression, which causes the user to crave more.2

Alongside the process of addiction, nicotine harms health by accelerating heart rate, reducing oxygen supply to body tissues, constricting blood vessels and raising blood pressure, which weakens organs, such as the heart, over time.3

There is no safe level of exposure to commercial tobacco smoke, and the damage from commercial tobacco smoke is immediate. The 2014 Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health documented causal associations between smoking and 15 different cancers (e.g. lung, colorectal, cervical, kidney, liver, and stomach), heart disease, stroke, COPD, asthma, diabetes, and adverse health outcomes in cancer patients and survivors, among others.

Secondhand smoke exposure has been causally associated with lung cancer, heart disease, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), reproductive effects in women (premature birth, low birth weight), and an increased risk for stroke as well.4

Commercial tobacco is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act,5 though the Act does not apply to cigars, little cigars, hookah, pipe tobacco or electronic nicotine devices. The FDA is currently in the process of establishing regulations over these commercial tobacco products, including advertising and promotion.6

Manufacturers have designed commercial tobacco products to be more attractive and addictive. Commercial tobacco companies have targeted American Indians and Alaska Natives in marketing, sponsoring events and giveaways, devising promotional strategies, and misappropriating cultural imagery and concepts.7



Additional Resources


  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Smoking – 50 Years of Progress. A Report of the Surgeon General.
  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Vital Signs: Disparities in Nonsmokers’ Exposure to Secondhand Smoke—United States, 1999–2012
  3. February 3, 2015 / Vol. 64 / Early Release
  4. National Institutes of Health National Institute on Drug Abuse. Tobacco/Nicotine. 2014
  5. Ibid
  6. Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act. 15 U.S. Code §§ 1331 to 1341.
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: Racial/ethnic differences among youth's cigarette smoking and susceptibility to start smoking - United States, 2002-2004, Vol. 55(47), December 1, 2006.
  9. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Tobacco Use Among U.S. Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups, Report of the Surgeon General, 1998,
  10. CDC, "Cigarette Smoking Among Adults and Trends in Smoking Cessation - United States, 2008," MMWR 58(44), November 13, 2009,
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Link Manipulating a Sacred Tradition

American Cancer Society. Manipulating a Sacred Tradition: An Investigation of Commercial Tobacco Marketing & Sales Strategies on the Navajo Nation and other Native Tribes Report.

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Link Tobacco Industry Marketing

Centers for Disease Prevention and Control. 2014. Tobacco Industry Marketing

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PDF Countering the Misuse of American Indian Imagery

California Rural Indian Health Board, Tobacco Education & Prevention Technical Support Center (TEPTS). Countering the Misuse of American Indian Imagery.