Alaska is big. And along with our big, wide-open spaces and big game, come our big problems. One of the biggest is tobacco use. The number of tobacco users — which includes smokeless tobacco products — in the 49th state is astounding, especially when it comes to youth.
For example, in Alaska, 14 percent of all high school students smoke. And more than eight percent use smokeless tobacco products, according to the Alaska Tobacco Control Alliance. Around 20 percent of Alaskan adults smoke.
But there’s hope. Especially if some of the young, motivated anti-tobacco activists have anything to say about it.
Rachel Gulanes from Unalaska and Adele Argaitchiaq Solski of Fairbanks, were two of those dedicated advocates selected to travel to the Surgeon General’s Region X Youth and Tobacco Town Hall in Seattle earlier this month to collect information and represent Alaska. The gathering featured youth from around the Pacific Northwest who took part in a discussion panel about tobacco prevention.
The town hall was a venue for Surgeon General Regina Benjamin to address her most recent report regarding tobacco prevention among teens and young adults.
Gulanes was a natural choice to represent Alaska at the meeting, as she is passionate about promoting smoke-free schools and workplaces in her community, said Lauren Kelsey, the School and Community Grant Manager who helped facilitate the trip.
“It’s so neat to have young people like Adele and Rachel involved like this, so we can hope this next generation isn’t addicted,” Kelsey said from Anchorage.
Gulanes started working in preventative health at age 14 and joined the Alaska Tobacco Control Alliance as a youth leader last fall.
“She has been instrumental in leading the coalition’s efforts to draft resolutions of support for statewide, smoke-free workplace law and comprehensive tobacco-free school district policy,” read a press release from ATCA.
“I was star-struck by the invitation to participate in the town hall,” said Gulanes in the release, who added that she was eager to go over the Surgeon General’s plan for tobacco prevention among youth.
One of the topics discussed at the event help on the University of Washington campus was how to reduce tobacco use in Native communities. Solski is Inupiaq and said it saddens her to see such prevalent tobacco use in her culture.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to be part of this panel and discuss Alaska Native culture and tobacco use,” Solski said.
And though the rates are still high — tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death in Alaska and a study by the Center for Disease control between 2000 and 2004 showed that an average of 500 Alaskans died each year as a direct result of tobacco use — dedicated volunteers like Gulanes are playing a huge role in breaking old habits.
And the outlook is promising, said Alexandria Hicks, manager with the State of Alaska Tobacco Prevention and Control Program.
“Alaska has made tremendous progress in reducing youth tobacco use, yet there is more work to be done,” she said. “We are proud of every young person that works to prevent or eliminate tobacco use in their community.”