Cigarette butts are crammed into an ashtray outside one of the Atlanta office buildings used by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The photo was taken in 2009, prior to the area becoming tobacco-free. In Alaska, the state’s anti-tobacco program has helped resident quit smoking or using smokeless tobacco or electronic cigarettes. (Courtesy photo by Dr. Oscar Tarragó/Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine/U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Alaskans trying to quit their tobacco habits made some significant progress over the past year, according to the annual report released this week by the state’s Tobacco Prevention and Control Program.

The program, which includes the Tobacco Quit Line, helped 1,753 Alaskans stop smoking or using smokeless tobacco or electronic cigarettes in the 12 months ending June 30, the annual report said. The program gave support to 21 community organizations around the state, the report said. The program also produced and distributed an anti-vaping toolkit to 52 of the state’s 54 school districts, and it also supported some districts’ efforts to find alternatives to suspension policies that reduce missed school days for students who are found to be vaping.

Statewide, smoking alone is linked to about 600 deaths a year, the annual report said.

Alaska citizens’ successful use of the state’s cessation program in 2023 continues a trend tracked since the mid-1990s. Then, 28% of Alaska adults smoked, and more than a third of high school students smoked.

After the state in 1997 slapped a hefty tax increase on cigarettes and other tobacco products – making Alaska’s tobacco tax the highest in the nation at the time – smoking rates fell dramatically among high schoolers and more gradually for adults. Other new laws, regulations and policies also discouraged tobacco use, the annual report noted.

The most recent information cited in the annual report puts the adult smoking rate at 17% in 2021 and the high school smoking rate at 8% in 2019.

However, youth e-cigarette use increased dramatically in recent years. As of 2019, 26% of high school students used those products, the annual report notes.

There is currently no state tax on e-cigarette products, though many municipalities impose their own taxes. The Legislature in 2022 passed a bill that would have imposed the state’s first such tax and also upped the legal age for purchase to 21 to match federal law. Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed the bill that September.

A revised version with an alternative tax formula, Senate Bill 89, passed the Senate in May and is now pending in the House.  On Tuesday, the first day of this year’s session, the bill was referred to the House Labor and Commerce Committee.

The Alaska Tobacco Prevention and Control Program’s anti-vaping work began in 2014, a few years after e-cigarette products came on the market. That work includes a “Live Vape Free” campaign targeted to both parents and teens.

The program also targets smokeless tobacco, which is more widely used in some rural areas. While 7% of Alaska adults use those products, the rate is 21% in Southwest Alaska, according to state data. Rural concerns have prompted a special emphasis on those areas, said Christy Knight, manager of Alaska’s Tobacco Prevention and Control Program.

“Alaska’s Tobacco Prevention and Control Program works closely with tribal and regional organizations like the Yukon-Kuskokwim and Bristol Bay Area Health Corporations to provide resources to quit, as well as to tailor educational materials in these rural regions,” she said in a statement.

Funding for the Tobacco Prevention and Control Program was $6.47 million from the state and $1.28 million from the federal government for fiscal 2023, the annual report said.

The dollar costs imposed by tobacco use far outstrip those outlays, according to state health officials.

Smoking is linked to an estimated $575 million in annual health care costs in Alaska, the program’s website states. Smoking-related illnesses that prevent people from working or doing other normal activities cost the state about another $400 million a year, the annual report said.

Chronic health problems, for which tobacco use is a major contributor, weigh heavily in the costs of the state’s Medicaid program, which serves lower-income patients, said the annual report. It cited an analysis that put direct Medicaid costs attributed to tobacco at over $192 million for fiscal 2016.