Alaskan teens and tweens steer their peers away from vaping and smoking

High school students Leena Edais (left) and Roey Armstrong (right) are peer educators with RurAL CAP, teaching other young people what they have learned about nicotine and addiction.

In a small conference room in downtown Anchorage, 17-year-old Roey Armstrong gathered 15 other teens and tweens in a circle so everyone could introduce themselves. They shared their names, where they were from, and a musician or genre they’re into right now, most giggling when it was their turn.

The youth came from towns like White Mountain, Chevak and New Stuyahok, all brought by the Rural Community Action Program (RurAL CAP) for a week-long training in late May to learn about the dangers of nicotine addiction. Although smoking rates have declined in the state, many teens are vaping and some are using chewing tobacco or the newer form of nicotine pods.

Peer relationships are very important to teens. So the goal was to educate teens about the real costs of addiction, so they can teach each other. And hopefully create a healthy kind of peer pressure.

Leena Edais, 16, also helped organize the conference. She said learning from other teens can be powerful.

“We hear adult stuff like every minute, every second of our day,” Edais said. “We are in school, learning from adults. And to have someone your age warn you about something, I feel like it’s more relatable.”

Historically, the tobacco and vaping industries have targeted ads at young people for a reason. The vast majority of regular adult smokers started before the age of 18. And the sooner they start smoking, the harder it will be to quit. In Alaska, nearly half of high school students have tried vaping and one in four have tried cigarettes.

This was the seventh year of the Peer Ambassador program. It’s called Youth Alaskans for Health, or YEAH.

Armstrong and Adais have been YEAH Teen Ambassadors for three years. They have learned a lot in that time about the science of addiction.

“You can form an addiction in 10 seconds,” Armstrong said. “That’s all it takes.”

They have received training on how advertisers and nicotine companies manipulate children, placing vapes at eye level in stores and marketing candy-like flavors.

“They see little kids and they see a dollar sign,” Armstrong said.

Edais explains that people who vape don’t fully understand the potential harms of what they’re breathing.

“[They think] it’s just a bit of flavored air,” Edais said, “when in reality it’s like chemicals and metals getting into your lungs.”

And they explained why young people are so vulnerable to addiction.

“I sound like my mom,” Armstrong said, “but your prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed until you’re about 26.” The prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain that is related to decision making and impulse control. And 99% of adult daily smokers started before that crucial age of 26.

The prefrontal cortex might be something a parent or teacher would talk about, but Armstrong has gotten very good at sharing complex information in an identifiable way. And that’s the point of YES.

Charlie Ess runs YEAH’s Peer Ambassador Program. He said he trusts teenagers like Armstrong because belonging is so important at his age.

“They have that relationship,” Ess said. “And they have street cred with their peers. So they tend to grab the attention of young people much better than an older guy like me.”

In some areas of the state, adolescents may have attempted to chew tobacco or iqmik, also known as “blackbull”, which is a mixture of tobacco and ash common in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. But Ess said vaping is common throughout Alaska. And he says that since it’s still a new technology, we don’t know the long-term health effects yet.

“We know there are metals in them,” Ess said. “We know they contain vegetable oils. There are all kinds of things that you normally wouldn’t put in your body.”

But the fruit and dessert flavors of e-cigarettes can make vaping seem harmless. And, Edais says he has to work against the messages of social media posts that make vaping look cool. For example, people will share videos of tricks they can do when they exhale.

“You see the TikTok side,” Edais said, “it’s like people are showing off their cool ‘ghosts’ with their vapes.”

Edais said that children also sell vaporizers on social media. But she said social media can also help people quit smoking. She said that she has seen powerful videos of people posting about it.

“I’ll be scrolling and then I’ll see this girl like putting a bunch of vaporizers in a cup of water,” Edais said. “And she said, I quit, guys. The third day, it is difficult”.

Of the 15 children at the conference, Armstrong hopes some of them will eventually want to become peer educators like her. But she said that even if they choose not to, they can make a difference.

“They can go back to their probably little communities and little villages,” Armstrong said, “and maybe tell people and share it.”

With all their training, Armstrong and Edais know they can’t stop anyone from vaping or say “no” to trying a cigarette. They can simply give people the information they have learned and hope it sticks.

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