ANCHORAGE - Children in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta chew or smoke tobacco at rates that far exceed state and national averages, according to a recent study.
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The study is expected to be published soon in the American Journal of Health Behavior.
It shows that in 2002, 63 percent of the region's 15- to 18-year-olds either smoked cigarettes, chewed tobacco or did both. The national smoking rate among high school students in 2004 was 28 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the Yukon-Kuskokwim study, about a quarter of the 11- to 14-year-olds chewed tobacco. Among children 6 to 10 years old, 12 percent said they regularly chewed tobacco, and 25 percent of them had tried it at least once.
Researchers noted that nationally, children rarely use tobacco before age 10.
"I was really surprised to know how early kids were chewing tobacco and also how willing they were to report that," said Sarah Angstman, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology and the study's principal investigator.
Chew is traditional in the area, making it tough for health officials to discourage its use.
Alaska Natives in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, mostly Yup'ik or Cup'ik Eskimo, have historically chewed a homemade tobacco concoction known as iqmik, a mix of cured tobacco leaves and ash from a woody fungus. Many also use commercial chewing tobacco.
"If a little kid is willing to say 'Yeah, I used tobacco' to a health aide in a small town, then it's likely that in that community, tobacco use is pretty accepted," Angstman said.
Caroline Nevak, who is in charge of tobacco research for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., started chewing as a young girl.
"I used to sneak iqmik like after lunch or during recess. I was pretty young when I started using."
Nevak, 35, quit about nine years ago after observing that her gums looked unhealthy.
Researchers looked at medical records of 665 Western Alaska children from 40 of 48 villages in the region. The children reported on their tobacco use during checkups in their villages from March 2001 to Feb. 28, 2002.