BETHEL -- Cancer beat injuries as the leading cause of death in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in 1997, according to a recent regional tobacco control conference.
Now the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. is taking steps to address the deadly disease because more than half of the Delta's population currently uses tobacco.
The first regional tobacco control conference was held in Bethel on April 26-27 to discuss the area's growing tobacco-use problem. Health risks from tobacco use and secondhand smoke were discussed, plus how to quit using tobacco.
Health corporation experts, ex-nicotine addicts and teen-agers were present at the conference held in the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center.
"Nicotine is more addictive than heroine," said Caroline Renner, director of nicotine research and control at the health corporation, which has built up a nicotine control program over the last two years to educate the public and help those trying to quit tobacco. Counseling is available for additional support.
Ikmiq, or punk ash, also causes the effects of nicotine to be greater and the addiction worse. Ikmiq is a tree fungus that grows wild in the Delta and is popular as an aftermarket additive to chewing tobacco used mostly by Native women, the Tundra Drums reported.
"Adding ash to tobacco is very dangerous because it makes nicotine reach the brain faster and the nicotine more available," Renner said. "The chemical makeup is changed. It delivers the drug more efficiently, making almost 100 percent of the nicotine available in tobacco."
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta has a drastically higher rate of people using tobacco than the rest of the country. While 23 percent of the country's population smokes, and 2 percent use smokeless tobacco, the Delta is home to a population of 42 percent smokers and 52 percent who use smokeless tobacco.
Rick Demientieff, 47, from Kasigluk, knows how addictive tobacco can be. He smoked for 32 years. Surgery was inevitable for Demientieff, who lost 40 percent of his lungs to emphysema, a common condition in long-term smokers.
"I can't do anything," said Demientieff. "I do go fishing but my wife won't let me pull in the net. I just feel useless. If I do a half-day's work, I'm tired for two days and drained of energy."