Closing the gap through tackling Indigenous smoking

19 March 2015

Zoya Patel

Zoya is the Senior Manager of Corporate Relations and Communication at YWCA Canberra.

Tom Calma with Zoya and Sherneal(Photo: Tom Calma with Zoya Patel, Communications and Advocacy Officer and Shernael Teaurima, Policy and Project Officer).

Today is Close the Gap day – a day where we reflect on the inequality in health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and make a commitment to closing the gap by 2030 so that all Australians experience health equality and have access to the resources, education and support they need to live full and healthy lives.

To explore some of the key issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people when it comes to health, we spoke to Dr Tom Calma AO, National Coordinator of the Tackling Indigenous Smoking program, founding member of the Close the Gap campaign, and human rights and social justice advocate, amongst numerous other titles.

For Tom, the Close the Gap campaign is critical to creating an Australia where health equality is a reality.

“The real beauty of the Close the Gap campaign is that it’s an inclusive program that is about health equality,” Tom says.

“But it’s not just about health alone, it’s looking at all the determinants of health that lead to poor health outcomes – the social and cultural determinants.

“And the cultural determinants are fairly unique to Australia, because we have such a significant Indigenous population here, and culture has an impact.”

As the National Coordinator of the Tackling Indigenous Smoking program, Tom is passionate about providing the resources and skills needed to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities move away from smoking.

“The whole program that we run is philosophically similar to the Close the Gap campaign, and that is empowering people to take control of their lives and manage their health,” Tom says.

“That’s what we’re saying – it’s not about trying to come in and dictate to people that they have to give up smoking. What we talk about are the benefits of not smoking and that becomes about empowerment and a way of being inclusive to smokers and not alienating them.”

This inclusive approach is incredibly important, and leads to much better outcomes than more hard-line approaches.

Tom talks about the need for an approach that looks at long-term, systemic change as well as the more immediate individual changes when it comes to smoking.

“It’s not going to happen overnight. People who are smokers will attempt many times to give up, but because it doesn’t work the first time you try doesn’t mean it’s a failure, it just means it’s a setback. So we have to continually encourage people to take on the challenge,” Tom explains.

“And it’s working – what we’ve seen over the last few years is that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community has really opened up and is talking about giving up smoking.”

Smoking is an important issue in the Close the Gap campaign also – almost 18 percent of chronic diseases are attributable to smoking, and it effects most cancers.

Tom talks about the need for education and empowerment about the health impacts of smoking both on the individual and those around them, to help effect that long term change.

“What I say to people all the time is that governments can’t make us healthy – we’ve got to make ourselves healthy, and government’s role is to facilitate that process,” Tom says.

“And in the long term, they have a responsibility because of our engagement at the international level with treaties and so forth, where the right to health is a very important right.

“And that’s what the Close the Gap campaign is about – taking a human rights approach to health equality.”

So, what do we need going forward to make closing the gap a reality?

For Tom, the first thing is a multi-party, bipartisan and consistent approach to health equality.

“Unless we have a consistent policy approach and consistent funding, we’re not going to see the outcomes we should see by 2030. For me, that means we need governments to take a multi-party approach to Indigenous health and health equality, and have a continual policy framework and funding. Then we have a real chance.”

“The second really important thing is to understand that to get health equality, we do have to address the social and cultural determinants of health. You won’t get improved health outcomes unless you have adequate housing, and we know that people who are employed, the higher their income and the further away from poverty, the better their health outcomes are. So education and employment are important as well.”

Oxfam are the key partners to the Close the Gap campaign, and have taken the lead in championing the campaign and investing in it. Tom acknowledged their work, and the impact their support has had to date.

“I think that to be able to achieve equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people we need to have an approach that’s anchored on the Close the Gap campaign. And if we take on that approach, a lot of the issues that confront Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, that governments might see as ‘problems’ but that we see as ‘challenges’, will be addressed in a real systematic way. This is long term systemic and cultural change, and that’s the only we’ll have success.’

To find out more about Close the Gap and to get involved, visit the Oxfam website. To read about YWCA Canberra’s Reconciliation Action Plan and to download a copy, head to our Publications and Resources page

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