Officials say smoking down among Alaska teens

Ward Hurlburt, chief medical officer for the state of Alaska, talks in Anchorage, Alaska, Monday, Oct. 14, 2013, about a significant decrease of smoking among students in the state. That finding comes from a survey of nearly 1,250 students from 43 high schools earlier this year. (AP Photo/Rachel D'Oro)

ANCHORAGE — Smoking among Alaska high school students has dramatically declined in recent years, health officials said Monday.


A spring survey found 40 percent fewer students are smoking compared to six years ago — 10.6 percent this year compared with 17.8 percent in 2007. Officials said that means only one in 10 students in the state reported smoking at least one cigarette during the past 30 days at the time of the survey.

“These are great numbers. It’s wonderful news,” state chief medical officer Ward Hurlburt said during a briefing in Anchorage to announce the survey findings. “We also know that there remains much work to be done. The tobacco companies continue to aggressively target young Alaskans and we need to remain vigilant in our fight to combat that message.”

The survey looked at nearly 1,250 students from 43 high schools that were randomly selected.

According to the survey, Alaska Native teens continue to have a rate of smoking more than twice as high as non-Natives — 18.5 percent among Alaska Native students compared with 8 percent among non-Natives in that age group.

However, the figure shows improvement over the rate of 31 percent in 2007 and more than 50 percent in 1995, said Lincoln Bean, vice chair of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

“Smoking tobacco is not a part of our traditional culture in Alaska,” said Bean, who is Tlingit. He said his ex-wife died this year of smoking-related cancer.

More than half of young Alaska Natives still try smoking, but many decide before they are hooked that it’s not for them, Bean said. He noted how important tobacco prevention partnerships are for fighting the use of tobacco, including the smokeless kind.

“I’m tired of seeing our people wash their face with their tears because so many people die of cancer,” he said.

Among all students, use of smokeless tobacco has not declined. The survey, however, showed a decrease in alcohol and marijuana use among all students.

In this year’s survey, 22.5 percent of high school students said they had consumed alcohol within the past month, compared with 39.7 percent in 2007. Regarding marijuana, 19.7 percent reported using the drug within the past month in this year’s survey, compared with 23.9 percent in 2003.

The Youth Risk Behavior Survey is conducted in U.S. schools every two years, and it was conducted in Alaska by the state Department Of Health and Social Services. Comparable national data is not yet available, and officials say Alaska’s survey results cannot be compared with other states.

In other behaviors, the Alaska survey showed that suicide remains a serious concern. In the past 12 months, 8.4 percent attempted suicide, compared with 10.7 percent in 2007.

Another area of concern is obesity, although there was a dip in the rates compared with six years ago. In this year’s survey, 26.2 of youths polled were overweight or obese, compared with 27.3 percent in 2007.


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