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Progress on Indigenous health – but much more to do

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Indigenous adults are cutting out smoking in increasing numbers, but many remain dangerously overweight and suffer significantly higher rates of cardiovascular disease and blood pressure problems compared with the rest of the community.

The latest official survey of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, prepared by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, shows that although significant progress is being made in convincing Indigenous people to quit smoking, they are more likely than most to suffer from a range of serious mental health problems and physical ailments.

The findings reinforce calls by the AMA, National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), and other groups for governments to sustain their efforts to close the health gap between the Indigenous community and the rest of the population.

In an encouraging result for health campaigners, the ABS survey of 13,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, conducted in 2012-13, found that 41 per cent of adults used tobacco on a daily basis, down from 51 per cent in 2002 and 44.6 per cent in 2008.

Just as significant, young Indigenous people are increasingly deciding not to take up the habit at all – the proportion of 15 to 17 year-olds who have never smoked has risen from 61 to 77 per cent.

NACCHO Chair Justin Mohamed said the result showed that “investment in programs to stop Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from smoking is reaping rewards”.

But Mr Mohamed added that the Indigenous smoking rate remained more than double that of the broader community, meaning there was no room to slacken the effort to encourage more people to quit the habit or resist taking it up in the first place.

The pressing need for sustained effort is amply clear when looking at other measure of health.

The ABS found that two-thirds of Indigenous adults were overweight or obese (as defined by their body mass index), one-and-a-half times the rate of the general population, while almost a third of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were overweight or obese.

Linked to this, Indigenous adults were, on average, more sedentary than adults in the broader community, with three out of every five defined as physically inactive.

In keeping with these and similar factors, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults were three times as likely to have diabetes or high blood sugar levels, one in five had high blood pressure, and 12 per cent had cardiovascular disease – 20 per cent more than the general population.

Inaugural Chair of Indigenous Health at the University of New South Wales, Professor Lisa Jackson Pulver, said that, while the results were concerning, they were not cause for despair.

Writing for the ABC’s The Drum website, Professor Jackson Pulver said high rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease in the Indigenous community were the accumulated outcome of a broad range of determinants of health over a significant period of time, and the effect of more recent efforts, such as the Closing the Gap agreements at COAG would take time to be apparent.

“It is too early,” she said. “More importantly, the severe disadvantage many of these data reflect reinforces the argument for concerted action and sustained funding over the longer term.”

Adrian Rollins