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Alaska among the worst states for smoking-caused cancer deaths

  • Author: Yereth Rosen
    | Arctic
  • Updated: October 28, 2016
  • Published October 28, 2016

Cigarettes cause a higher percentage of cancer deaths in Alaska than in almost every other U.S. state, a new national report says.

Of the cancer deaths among Alaska adults in 2014, 31.4 percent were caused by cigarettes, the sixth highest rate in the nation, said the report, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, a journal of the American Medical Society.

With its high rate, Alaska is an outlier.

Most states with high rates of smoking-caused cancer deaths were in the South. Kentucky, with 34 percent of its 2014 cancer deaths attributable to cigarettes, topped the list. Arkansas, with a 33.5 percent rate, was second.

Nevada was another non-southern outlier, ranking 10th highest in 2014, according to the results. The report noted that Nevada is one of the few non-southern U.S. states where smoking is still allowed in bars and casinos.

The study, by researchers from the American Cancer Society, evaluated the cancer deaths that occurred in 2014 adults 35 and older. In Alaska, there were 943 cancer deaths for those adults that year, 296 of them that were believed to be caused by cigarette smoking, the report said.

States with the lowest cigarette-related cancer death rates were mostly in the west. Utah had the lowest rate by far, with only 16.6 percent of its 2014 cancer deaths attributed to cigarette smoking, according to the report. California, Colorado and Hawaii had the next-lowest rates, with about a quarter of cancer deaths in those states caused by cigarettes, according to the report.

Apart from its northern geography, Alaska stuck out for another reason — smoking rates for women were equivalent to those for men, the report said. That was reflected in mortality statistics. Among women, Alaska was the state with the second-highest percentage of cancer deaths attributed to cigarette smoking.

The results did not surprise experts with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, an organization trying to reduce the disproportionately high rates of tobacco use and tobacco-related cancers among the state's indigenous peoples.

"It's a leading preventable cause of death," said Gary Ferguson, senior director of community health services at ANTHC.

While 21.9 percent of Alaska adults smoked in 2013, according to a report from the state Department of Health and Social Services, the smoking rate for Alaska Native adults is 42 percent.

Smoking rates are even higher in some regions like the North Slope, where it is above 50 percent, said Diana Diehl, tobacco prevention program manager at ANTHC.

Tobacco-related cancer rates are also high, according to a 2015 report by ANTHC's Epidemiology Center.

Those illnesses go beyond lung cancer, Ferguson said. Colorectal cancer, for example, is linked to tobacco use, he said.

The consortium is working to establish smoke-free policies around Alaska, Diehl said. However, a bill that would establish smoke-free conditions at work sites and public places statewide died this year in the Alaska Legislature.

When it comes to convincing Alaska Natives to avoid tobacco, health experts have had some success with younger generations, Ferguson said. "The good news is we've had reductions in youth tobacco use," he said.

The rise in electronic cigarettes, however, is a worrying trend because those products are targeted at young consumers, he said.

Experts at ANTHC are also working to convince current tobacco users to avoid spreading their smoke to others, especially children.

"When you think of the North, it's cold. Going outside isn't convenient," Ferguson said. But given the risks of second-hand smoke, "It's the right thing to do," he said.

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