The Pituri Learning Circle: Central Australian Aboriginal women's knowledge and practices around the use of Nicotiana spp. as a chewing tobacco

A. M. Ratsch, A. Mason, L. Rive, F. E. Bogossian, K. J. Steadman

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Introduction: Tobacco smoking has a range of known and predictable adverse outcomes, and across the world sustained smoking reduction campaigns are targeted towards reducing individual and public risk and harm. Conversely, more than 87 million women, mostly in low- and middle-income countries, use smokeless tobacco, yet the research examining the effect of this form of tobacco exposure on women is remarkably scant. In central Australia, the chewing of wild Nicotiana spp., a tobacco plant, commonly known as pituri and mingkulpa, is practised by Aboriginal groups across a broad geographical area. Until recently, there had been no health research conducted on the effects of chewing pituri. Methods: This article reports on one component of a multidimensional pituri research agenda. A narrative approach utilising the methodology of the Learning Circle was used to interview three key senior central Australian Aboriginal women representative of three large geographical language groupings. The participants were selected by a regional Aboriginal women's organisation. With the assistance of interpreters, a semistructured interview, and specific trigger resources, participants provided responses to enable an understanding of the women's ethnobotanical pituri knowledge and practices around the use of pituri within the context of Aboriginal women's lives. Data were transcribed, and by using a constant comparison analysis, emergent themes were categorised. The draft findings and manuscript were translated into the participants' language and validated by the participants. Results: Three themes around pituri emerged: (a) the plants, preparation and use; (b) individual health and wellbeing; and (c) family and community connectedness. The findings demonstrated similar participant ethnobotanical knowledge and practices across the geographical area. The participants clearly articulated the ethnopharmacological knowledge associated with mixing pituri with wood ash to facilitate the extraction of nicotine from Nicotiana spp., the results of which were biochemically verified. The participants catalogued the pleasurable and desired effects obtained from pituri use, the miscellaneous uses of pituri, as well as the adverse effects of pituri overdose and toxicity, the catalogue of which matched those of nicotine. The participants' overarching pituri theme was related to the inherent role pituri has in the connectiveness of people to family, friends and community. Conclusions: Central Australian Aboriginal women have a firmly established knowledge and understanding of the pharmacological principles related to the content of Nicotiana spp. and the extraction of nicotine from the plant. Widespread use of Nicotiana spp. as a chewing tobacco by Aboriginal populations in the southern, central and western desert regions of Australia is attested to by participants who assert that everyone uses it, with girls in these remote areas commencing use between 5 and 7 years of age. Central Australian Aboriginal people who chew Nicotiana spp. do not consider it to be a tobacco plant, and will strongly refute that they are tobacco users. Central Australian Aboriginal people do not consider that the Western health information regarding tobacco (as a smoked product) is applicable or aligned to their use of pituri. Nicotiana spp. users will deny tobacco use at health assessment. There is a requirement to develop and provide health information on a broader range of tobacco and nicotine products in ways that are considered credible by the Aboriginal population. Health messages around pituri use need to account for the dominant role that pituri occupies in the context of central Australian Aboriginal women's lives. Information for readers: A consultative organisation of Aboriginal women has as a strategic intent and operational agenda the improvement of Aboriginal women's and children's health across the research region. The group seeks opportunities to enhance their knowledge based on legitimate collaborative research; accordingly, they sought to participate in a range of research activities regarding the use of pituri and women's health outcomes. Of particular note, the group's participants chose to be identified by name in the publication of this research activity. In this article, the term 'Aboriginal' has been chosen by the central Australian women to refer to both themselves and the Aboriginal people in their communities; 'Indigenous' has been chosen to refer to the wider Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The term Nicotiana spp. is used when referring to the plants from a Western perspective; pituri is used when referring to the plants, the tobacco quid, and the practice of chewing from a general Aboriginal perspective; and mingkulpa is used when the participants are voicing their specific knowledge and practices.

Original languageEnglish
Article number4044
Number of pages15
JournalRural and Remote Health
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 6 Aug 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Central Australian Aboriginal population
  • Chewing tobacco
  • Mingkulpa
  • Pituri
  • Smokeless tobacco
  • Women

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