Tackling Indigenous Smoking and Healthy Lifestyles

Glen Gurruwiwi and Oscar Datjarrnga say Yaka Ngarali

Glen Gurruwuiwi and Oscar Datjarrnga say Yaka Ngarali
“Duties I have been carrying out, Monday to Friday, have been visiting house to house in Galiwin’ku, educating people not to smoke in the house, and in public areas. I use two Yolngu men as role models, and they tell the people how they have been affected by smoking – one went to Adelaide for a bypass and one had a coronary stent put in. They talk about their experiences. Sometimes I pick a group and they tell stories about how they feel. I have told them about the poisons in tobacco – about how many chemicals are inside a cigarette, and I tell them about the kinds of effects those chemicals have on their body.” Glen Gurruwiwi

Healthy Lifestyles

All evidence confirms the importance of physical exercise and not smoking in both preventing some of the most serious chronic illnesses in the region and in managing those illnesses once contracted.

Tackling those risk factors in the Miwatj region has in the past been hindered by a lack of sporting infrastructure and organised programs to promote physical fitness, and by a widespread social acceptance of tobacco use which pre-dates the arrival of Europeans in Australia.

Miwatj’s Healthy Lifestyles Program aims to develop a sustainable base of activities, knowledge and resources in communities which will address those barriers.

Miwatj employs a number of local Yolngu as Tobacco Workers in communities across the region. These workers engage the community in a range of activities such as raising awareness about the dangers of smoking, supporting quit attempts, advocating for smoke-free spaces, reducing exposure to passive smoking, participating in such community-run events as the Galiwin’ku Healthy Lifestyle Carnival, and using role models to deliver direct messages about healthy living. A key strength of Miwatj’s approach is that the strategies are targeted to local needs and implemented by a workforce with detailed understanding of the unique context of their communities.

This is complemented by action to address the lack of opportunity for young people in remote communities to take part in programs and events which promote physical fitness. Across the region, a dearth of sports infrastructure and equipment combines with isolation from organised competition to deprive young people of the many benefits of regular physical exercise. The Healthy Lifestyle program engages with schools and other community organisations to improve the availability of facilities and equipment, and promote the participation of young people in organised team sports.

The value of the program is illustrated by an initiative for a group of at-risk 12 to 16 year-old Yolngu girls from three East Arnhem Land communities. This included a weekly drop-in centre, a healthy lifestyle clinic, regular school attendance and engagement, and participation in netball competition. Fifteen of the girls also travelled to Sydney for a 6-day trip which included netball workshops and tours of sporting facilities. Participation in the program broadened the girls’ horizons and had a noticeable effect on their self-confidence.


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