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COVID-19: DHSS Insights

Most Alaska smokers want to quit

The Great American Smokeout can be their day to start

November 10, 2020 - In Alaska, two out of three adults who smoke want to quit. The annual Great American Smokeout, scheduled for Nov. 19 this year, has helped many people start to quit tobacco use. The American Cancer Society supports the event every third Thursday of November. The Smokeout lasts for just one day, but it prepares people to plan and start quitting their tobacco use for good.

“The pandemic has brought to light, perhaps more than ever, the importance of staying healthy year-round and protecting our lungs,” said Christy Knight, program manager for Alaska’s tobacco prevention program. “We know that smoking weakens the immune system, which makes it harder for your body to fight viruses like COVID-19. On the Smokeout and every day of the year, our program has free resources like Alaska’s Tobacco Quit Line to help people stop using tobacco and feel better right away.”

Tobacco is the leading preventable cause of death and disease in the United States, as well as in Alaska. Each year, smoking is linked to an estimated 700 deaths and $575 million in health care costs in Alaska. Smoking harms nearly every organ of the body, and breathing secondhand smoke can cause diseases and death as well. Every year in Alaska, tobacco causes more deaths than suicide, motor vehicle crashes, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, homicide and HIV/AIDS combined, as stated in the Tobacco Prevention and Control’s Annual Report.

Over the past 50 years, health care providers have learned more about the harmful effects of tobacco use in all forms. In 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General released the first report of the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health. This report was the first of many to document the significant negative health effects caused by tobacco use. It sparked actions to ensure the health and safety of Americans through policies and health education efforts shown to prevent and reduce tobacco use. Since that time, cigarette use has significantly declined nationally and in Alaska. Between 1996 and 2017, the percentage of adult smokers in Alaska fell from 28% to 20%. Between 1995 and 2017, the percentage of Alaska high school students who smoked decreased from 37% to 10%.

While there’s been a steady decline in cigarette use among Alaskans, e-cigarettes pose a new challenge. In the past decade, the number of teens using e-cigarettes has significantly increased. In 2018, the U.S. Surgeon General called youth e-cigarette use an epidemic in the United States. In 2019, 1 out of 4 Alaska high school students currently used e-cigarettes, and about 1 out of 2 had ever tried them, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. These vaping devices often have high nicotine concentrations, which is a concern for addiction in the developing teen brain.

It is never too late to quit smoking. Improvements are immediate. Within just one hour after quitting, a person’s heart rate improves. Within one day, nicotine levels drop to zero and, after several days, carbon monoxide levels drop to the level of a nonsmoker. The benefits of quitting continue over the following months and years, including reduced risk for chronic disease such as cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Quitting can be hard, but Alaskans don’t have to do it alone. That’s where the Great American Smokeout comes in: Individuals and communities come together to celebrate one day without tobacco use. Alaskans can contact local tobacco prevention organizations to find events in their communities.

Alaskans who want to quit tobacco or e-cigarette use can get help every day of the year. Alaska’s Tobacco Quit Line offers free support and services that are individually tailored to each adult’s needs. The Quit Line offers 24/7 access to trained coaches who provide ongoing support. People who enroll in the Quit Line also can receive free nicotine replacement therapy, such as nicotine patches, lozenges and gum. Alaskans who participate in the Smokeout and decide to be free of tobacco can call 1-800-QUIT-NOW or text READY to 200-400 to set up a quit plan that is right for them.

Alaska parents or guardians of teens who use tobacco, including e-cigarettes, can seek help by talking to their teen’s health care provider. Visit Alaska’s Tobacco Quit Line and log into Live Vape Free for more information about e-cigarettes and resources to help teens quit vaping. This site offers free, online learning experiences and resources to help parents learn about the different types of vapes youth use and how to have supportive conversations with teens about quitting.