FAIRBANKS — Alaska Native anti-tobacco crusaders received unanimous support from the board of the state’s largest Native organization last year.
Now, with that support of the Alaska Federation of Natives, they’re trying to cut into the state’s high rate of tobacco use by Alaska Natives by persuading individual tribes to stop their employees from smoking at work. They’ve been particularly successful in the Interior, where the Tanana Chiefs Conference — a nonprofit corporation serving 42 Interior villages — resolved to ban tobacco products on tribal government facilities this year.
“We want to protect workers and children from secondhand smoke but also from seeing it as a social norm,” said Gary Ferguson, the wellness and prevention director for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. He has been a vocal anti-tobacco advocate.
“In the Interior, we have very resistant rates of tobacco use, and having an organization like TCC make a stand for its facilities basically sets the stage,” he said.
A majority of the state’s population is already protected from workplace secondhand smoke if you factor in municipal bans like those in Anchorage and Nome as well as employers that have made workplaces smoke-free, according to Andrea Thomas, tobacco department manager for the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium.
Because there are so many tribal governments in the state, it is difficult to know how many have established policies like that of TCC, but at least seven have passed resolutions in support of smoke-free workplaces this year, she said. The Native Village of Nenana passed such a resolution.
Native anti-smoking advocates point to “Tobacco in the Great Land,” a 200-page report on tobacco use commissioned by the state government as a potent argument for fighting tobacco use. According the most recent report, in 2008 it’s estimated that 43 percent of Alaskan Native adults smoked cigarettes based on self-reported surveys. The estimated number of non-Native adults who smoked was 19 percent. Both rates are higher in Bush communities than in cities and have declined during the past 10 years.
The report overwhelmingly identifies tobacco as the leading cause of preventable disease in the state and directly responsible for $500 million annually in direct medical expenditures and lost productivity because of tobacco-related deaths.
Smoking stats and facts
Here are some of the findings taken directly from the 2012 update of Alaska Tobacco Facts, produced by the Tobacco Prevention and Control Program and the Section of Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, both located in the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services
• The percentage of adult smokers in Alaska has declined by one-fourth since 1996 to 20.6 percent in 2010, a statistically significant decrease.
• Alaska Native adults are still twice as likely to smoke as non-Native adults.
• Alaska Native adults are more likely to be smokers than Hispanic, white, African American or Asian adults.
• Smoking among high school students has declined more than 60 percent, from 37 percent in 1995 to 14 percent in 2011.
• Alaska Native high school students — both boys and girls — are significantly more likely to smoke than students from other race groups, although the gap has decreased considerably since 2003.
• Since 1996, the percentage of Alaska Native adults who smoke every day has remained about the same, while the percentage of non-Native adult daily smokers has decreased.
• Quit attempts among Alaska Native people who smoke have increased from 59 percent in 2001 to 65 percent in 2010.
• Among adults in Alaska, Alaska Native adults are more likely to use smokeless tobacco than non-Native adults.
• Men use smokeless tobacco more than women, but Alaska Native women are as likely to use smokeless tobacco as non-Native men.
• More than half of adult Alaskans who are using smokeless tobacco report using chewing tobacco alone; chewing tobacco accounts for 27 percent of Alaska Native and 73 percent of non-Native smokeless tobacco use.
• Sixteen percent of adults who use smokeless tobacco — 47 percent of Alaska Native users — are using tobacco in the form of Iqmik or Blackbull, an Alaska-specific smokeless tobacco variant. Iqmik is prepared by mixing chewing tobacco with the ash of a punk fungus.
Read the full Alaska Tobacco Facts report here.
Contact Fairbanks Daily News-Miner staff writer Sam Friedman at 907-459-7545.