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November 22nd, 2016:

Facebook could help lower Indigenous smoking rates, Northern Territory health researchers say

Indigenous people have the highest rates of smoking in the country, but researchers in the Top End believe Facebook could be the most effective way of helping them quit.

Aboriginal people living in remote communities smoke at three times the rate of other Australians, according to research fellow Marita Hefler from the Menzies School of Health Research in Darwin.

Preliminary research into the role of Facebook in helping smokers to quit has found that although the living situations of Indigenous Australians differs widely across the Northern Territory, even those who lack food or clothing may still own a smartphone.

“We know that Aboriginal people use social media at very high rates; it’s been taken up even in remote communities, particularly where people have limited communication through other means,” Ms Hefler said.

Researchers believe Indigenous people use Facebook at higher rates than the overall population, making it one of the most effective ways to reach out.

“Facebook is a more effective way of reaching Indigenous Australians than traditional forms of communication; what we need to figure out is how to harness that message,” Ms Hefler said.

Early findings show that when friends and family talk about quitting smoking on social media, it has a greater effect than traditional hardline anti-smoking ads.

“The people in your Facebook networks influence you the most,” Ms Hefler said.

“In the past, anti-smoking advertising has relied heavily on having a captive audience; we know that smokers don’t like the content they are seeing, but they can’t get away. Now with the advent of Facebook, all you have to do is swipe and the message is gone.”

Cigarettes more popular than fruit in outback stores

Customers in remote Australia spent roughly four and a half times more on cigarettes than fruit and vegetables in 2015-16, said Stephen Bradley, chairman of Outback Stores, a government-owned company which manages 37 businesses in some of the remotest parts of the country.

An incentive program run by Outback Stores to improve community health has resulted in a 0.5 per cent drop in soft drink sales and a five per cent increase in fruit and vegetable sales, but Mr. Bradley admits more needs to be done.

“We remain convinced that a significant dietary change will take many years and our support programs need to operate for the longer term to be effective,” he said.

The Federal Government is aiming to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous life expectancy within a generation.

Indigenous deaths caused by heart disease and strokes have been dropping but on average Indigenous people are still dying 10 years younger than non-Indigenous Australians.

“Smoking in Aboriginal communities looks quite different to what it does in the rest of Australia,” Ms Hefler said.

“There’s historical reasons why the smoking rate is higher: it’s tied up in inter-generational trauma, and we also know the stolen generations are more likely to smoke.”

Using Facebook to quit

After suffering a heart attack on her 50th birthday, Chuna Lowah is trying to quit smoking, and is hopeful Facebook can help.

Ms Lowah has been a smoker for more than half her life and agrees the tough traditional anti-smoking ads are too easy to ignore.

“On Facebook I have seen some of my friends quitting smoking, using Facebook as a diary, and they’ve been very successful. I’m hoping that sharing my experiences will also help me quit,” she said.

The preliminary research findings from Menzies have been welcomed by NT Territory Labor MP Chansey Paech, whose central Australian electorate of Namatjira has a high Indigenous population.

“Both the Territory and Federal Governments have made significant contributions over the last several years to reduce the rates of smoking, so I’m looking forward to reading the report and seeing what the recommendations are, and hopefully reducing the smoking rate in the Northern Territory, which we know is too high,” he said.