Native villagers can't kick soda habit

One-third of toddlers in rural Alaska have sugary drinks daily

Posted: Monday, July 21, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Years ago Alaska Native health officials declared war on sugary soda pop in rural towns and villages.

Pop is winning.

Nearly one-third of toddlers in rural Northern and Southwest Alaska have two or more cups of sugary drinks, such as regular soda, on an average day, according to a 2006 state Health Department survey.

That's true for only 3 percent of toddlers in the rest of the state. An earlier state poll showed adults in rural Alaska drink about three times as much pop a day as adults in Anchorage and Fairbanks.

"I couldn't imagine that it was even worse than it is today," said Troy Ritter, senior environmental health consultant for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

"When I go to the village store, sometimes there's not a lot there, but you always have soda pop."

It's clear-and-clean drinking water that can be hard to come by in rural homes. In about one out of five villages, fewer than 10 percent of homes have running water, according to the consortium.

"Many of the villages that have highest soda pop consumption - probably the majority - don't have running water. Or if they do have running water, it's not drinkable," said state Rep. Mary Nelson, D-Bethel.

Bethel is a hub community for dozens of villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. But the water there still stains her husband's white shirts brown, Nelson said.

"It looks like chicken soup broth when it comes out of my faucet," she said. "I don't even like to take a shower in it."

Northern Air Cargo flies about 50,000 pounds of beverages a week to communities like Barrow, Kotzebue and Nome, said spokeswoman Margot Wiegele.

That includes some bottled water, but it's mostly soda, she said.

Health care providers have long tried to encourage rural kids and adults to trade pop and other sugary drinks for water in order to ward off diabetes, obesity and rampant cavities.

"Baby teeth are rotting out. That's unthinkable in western society," said tribal health consortium chief executive Don Kashevaroff.

Seven years ago, the tribal health consortium and Alaska Native Health Board sent letters to 500 schools and 600 stores asking them to help curb consumption. Though not strictly part of its "Stop the Pop" campaign, the consortium launched a dental health aide program designed to provide rare dental service in villages.

As for the recent numbers that say the Bush is still soaked in soda, Kashevaroff said the war isn't over yet.

"We ran out of ammunition for a while," he said.

In 2003, Nelson proposed a bill that would have stopped schools from selling sugary soft drinks during the school day. It never reached a vote, though some schools barred soda sales anyway, she said.

"Have you ever seen a (baby) bottle full of Coca-Cola? Black?" Nelson asked.

"It is not uncommon at all."

Even if water is free or cheap, that doesn't mean people want to drink it.

The tribal health consortium recently surveyed 200 homes in three Yukon-Kuskokwim area villages, asking if they're drinking the local treated water.

Only about 30 percent said yes, according to preliminary results, Ritter said.

Most didn't like the taste.

"We love rain water," one respondent said. "It tastes better."

Kashevaroff, the consortium executive, said village stores are packed with pop, and marketing helps fuel demand.

"You watch TV and every basketball game. ... If they're not advertising beer, it's Sprite or Coke or Pepsi."

In their book "Chew On This: Everything You Don't Want to Know About Fast Food," authors Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson write that in 2000, Coca-Cola and a local bottler painted planes that flew in and out of Bethel with giant Coke and Sprite logos.

The company also sponsored Alaska basketball hero Trajan Langdon's visits to the state, the authors wrote.

Karol Fink is an obesity prevention and control program manager for the state. In the battle against sugary drinks, education has its place, she said.

But pamphlets and posters - the tactic of recent years - might not be enough.

The state recommends that school districts restrict pop sales, for example.

Fink said the Division of Public Health has looked at other states' attempts to adopt a tax on soda, but isn't necessarily calling for a tax at the moment. She talked about ideas like requiring chain restaurants to put the calorie count of sodas on their menus, or removing freight subsidies for flying pop to the Bush.

In the Yukon River village of Galena, Lavern Demoski and her two daughters used to go through a six pack of Pepsi or 7-Up a day.

Then about three years ago, one of the girls quit. Then the other. Finally it was mom's turn.

The girls were worried about their teeth, Demoski said. One had learned how many spoonfuls of sugar are in a bottle of pop.

At Alaska Commercial Co. stores - there are 32 across the state - president Rex Wilhelm reports a dip in soda sales as people buy more energy drinks.

While energy drinks are high in sugar too, some lower-calorie choices like Propel water are also gaining popularity, Wilhelm said.

Things are changing. Just not quickly, he said. "People are trying to make more healthy choices."

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