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Tobacco-Free Alaska > Community Spotlight > December 2017

December 2017 Spotlight: TOBACCO-FREE SCHOOLS - An effective policy to protect Alaska’s Youth

Two high school boys sitting in front of their lockers.

By Shayla Compton, Health Equity Coordinator

Empowering Youth to Promote Tobacco-Free Environments

On October 26, 2017, Teeland Middle School was the host of the fall Alaska Association of Student Government (AASG) Conference. Approximately 500 Students from every corner of the state - representing 25,000 students - descended onto the campus to elevate students’ voices on issues impacting their peers and greater community. One focal point of the AASG Conference’s peer-based leadership training was substance use prevention, including tobacco use.

Alaska’s Youth Tobacco Use – Risk by the Numbers

According to national data, most smokers began smoking before the age of 18.[1] Despite declines in cigarette use among youth for the past two decades, use of electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), also known as “vapes,” is on the rise, and declines for smokeless tobacco and cigar use have slowed. In Alaska, the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS)[2] shows similar trends:

  • 26 percent of Alaska students smoke cigarettes or cigars or use smokeless tobacco or electronic vapor products.
  • Alaska Native students are more likely to use tobacco products (36.8%) compared to their non-Native peers (22.8%).
  • Approximately 10% of Alaska high school students started smoking before the age of 13.
  • Approximately 3% of Alaska high school students smoke cigarettes on school property.
  • Only 54% of students believe there is a great risk of harm associated with tobacco use (smoking one or more packs of cigarettes per day) - a decrease from 60% in 2015.

These facts expose an underlying problem: when decreased harm perception is met with steady or increased initiation, there is the potential that another generation of youth will become addicted to nicotine and face an increased risk of premature illness or death.

Approximately 3% of Alaska high school students smoke cigarettes on school property

– 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey

Decreasing youth initiation through policy

CDC’s evidence-based youth prevention strategies recommend adopting tobacco-free school district policies that normalize no smoking and other tobacco use in school environments and protect from secondhand smoke exposure. Implementing and enforcing the policy is a necessary, on-going practice to denormalize youth tobacco use and shift behavior change and risk perceptions.

While every school in Alaska has some version of policy language found in student handbooks or guidance documents from their local school board that prohibits tobacco use by students on campus, a comprehensive tobacco-free school district policy, that includes adults, goes further by requiring a policy that adds the following elements:

  1. Prohibits use of tobacco products on all school property (including grounds, buildings, parking areas, and residences where applicable)
  2. Prohibits use of tobacco products in school vehicles.
  3. Prohibits use of tobacco products at any school-sponsored event (on or off campus)
  4. Applies to all students, staff, and visitors.
  5. Defines tobacco to mean all forms of tobacco and tobacco use (all smoking products, smokeless tobacco products, and non-treatment nicotine delivery devices).
  6. Requires the posting of signs informing students, staff, and visitors that school grounds are tobacco-free.
  7. Policy remains in force at all times.

Currently of the 54 school districts in Alaska only 42 have comprehensive tobacco-fee school district policies in place. The TPC Program grantees work in their communities with school administrators, teachers, students, and community members to address concerns that may affect a successful policy implementation. Challenges are opportunities in disguise, and recognizing each school’s unique cultural, social, and geographic environment and maximizing the strengths of each, are ‘protective” factors in helping to reduce youth tobacco initiation.

The AASG conference shows one example of how youth are taking action to protect against youth tobacco initiation. In 2016, student delegates from Soldotna High School sponsored a resolution for tobacco-free school campuses. The resolution passed unanimously and was presented by AASG delegates to the Legislature in support of statewide smokefree workplaces.

Another example of youth taking charge to model and promote a tobacco-free lifestyle is found in the Barrow Whalers Football Team as highlighted in our January Community Spotlight segment; they are true community champions (Division III Football champions too!). Regional TPC grant programs support youth to educate their peers and community members about the harms of tobacco and the benefits of quitting, while advocating for policy change to prevent youth initiation.

For more information about active community resources and programs to engage youth in your community and/or implementing a tobacco-free school district policy, contact the TPC program through Shayla Compton:

  1. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (2017) Office on Smoking and Health. Accessed on December 13, 2017.
  2. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (2017) Alaska Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Accessed on December 1, 2017.