Children in Head Start help spread tobacco-free message

Marina Co shows off her “Growing Up Tobacco-Free in Alaska” bucket.-Photo provided

Shortly before the holiday break, the youngsters at Homer Head Start joined Alaska’s fight against tobacco use, thanks to a program sponsored by RurAL CAP, Rural Alaska Community Action Program, Inc.

When the 4- and 5-year-olds headed home that day, the youngsters carried little buckets containing items like color crayons, pencils and stickers. On the side of the bucket was the message “growing up tobacco-free in Alaska.” The message was meant to be a conversation-starter, said Martha Wagele, Homer Head Start family advocate.

“Head Start’s overall goal is to help kids be ready for kindergarten,” said Wagele. “Helping them stay healthy is part of the effort. “

An important part of the tobacco-free program is the survey conducted in the fall and again in the spring. Families are asked about tobacco use and attempts to quit.

“We have 24 (sites) around the state,” said Amy Modig, wellness education coordinator with RurAL CAP, a private, statewide nonprofit organization founded in 1965 to improve the quality of life for low-income Alaskans. Modig was in Homer to help kick off the local program.

The survey revealed some sites where 100 percent of the families have members that use tobacco, said Wagele. Homer it was about half that.

“Out of 31 families, 15 had tobacco use,” said Wagele of Homer survey results. She was encouraged that “none used inside the home.”

Eliminating smoking in indoor spaces is the only way to fully protect nonsmokers from exposure to secondhand smoke, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Still, the state of Alaska reports more than 9,000 Alaska children are exposed to secondhand smoke in their homes.

There was cause for statewide encouragement in “Alaska Tobacco Facts,” released in 2012 by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Among the statistics:

• There were 436 million fewer cigarettes sold in 2010 than in 1996;

• Per adult cigarette consumption declined 51 percent during that same time period;

• Smoking among high school students has dropped more than 60 percent, from 37 percent in 1995 to 14 percent in 2011. 

As impressive as those declines may be, there was still cause for concern:

• In 2010, tobacco use cost Alaska $348 million in direct medical expenditures and an additional $231 million in lost productivity due to tobacco-related deaths, according to the same report;

• More Alaskans die annually from the direct effects of tobacco use than from suicide, motor vehicle crashes, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, homicide and HIV/AIDS combined;

* Alaska Native adults are still twice as likely to smoke as non-Native adults;

• Adult adults with less education, lower incomes and who live in rural areas of the state smoke more than their peers;

• More than half of all current smokers, 57 percent, were smoking by the time they were 17 years old;  

* The majority of Alaska adults who currently smoke want to quit, about three out of five have tried to quit in the last 12 months.

Offering support to those wanting to quit is what Wagele is ready to provide.

“I ask each of the tobacco users if they want information about quitting,” said Wagele. “It’s pretty casual.”

Modig said it is gratifying to that people in the Homer area have someone — Wagele — to answer questions about tobacco use and, more importantly, nonuse. While making a New Year’s resolution to quit smoking is a good step, Modig suggests making a plan that includes:

• Reason(s) for quitting;

• The quit date;

• The cost of tobacco.

For additional information, she suggested the Quit Tobacco website,

In the spring, when Wagele conducts the follow-up survey, she’ll have an idea of the program’s impact.

“It’s planting a seed and giving support without pressure,” she said.

 McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at

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