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Originally published Thursday, June 14, 2012 at 9:35 PM

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U.S. surgeon general joins effort to reduce smoking in youths

Despite efforts to reduce smoking in Washington state, 70,000 youths smoke cigarettes and 50 start every day, according to state officials...

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Despite efforts to reduce smoking in Washington state, 70,000 youths smoke cigarettes and 50 start every day, according to state officials, with American Indian youth showing the highest rates.

U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, state Secretary of Health Mary Selecky and other national, state and local health officials discussed youth tobacco use at a town-hall meeting on the University of Washington campus Thursday. The meeting was part of a nationwide awareness initiative by the Department of Health and Human Services.

More than 1,200 people die nationwide every day from tobacco use, Benjamin said. Benjamin, who lost her mother to lung cancer due to smoking, said it's her mission to reduce smoking particularly among youth — as 88 percent of all smokers begin smoking by age 18.

In Washington state, American Indian youth have the highest smoking rate by far, with 27 percent of high-school seniors reporting in 2010 that they smoked within the last 30 days.

In King County, American Indian, Pacific Islander and Latino communities have the highest youth smoking rates, at 10 percent or higher.

Although smoking in King County declined in the mid-1990s and stalled in recent years, tobacco still claims the lives of 1 in 5 residents and costs the county $343 million annually in health-care expenses and lost wages, according to Public Health — Seattle & King County.

"Our main objective is intergenerational," said panelist Jesse Youckton, 26, of Olympia. "It requires the whole family and whole community to address the issue. We look up to our elders, so we follow their lead."

As a member of the Chehalis tribe, Youckton said he participated in prevention programs in school to end the cycle of tobacco use ravaging his community.

The issue of respecting elders, many of whom smoke, resonated with other panelists.

"One thing really overlooked is looking after ourselves, looking after our health," said Adele Argaitchiaq Solski, an incoming freshman at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, who also worked to reduce smoking in her Inupiaq Eskimo community.

The youngest of six, Solski said she joined student activist groups to help her five siblings and father quit smoking. Because of her cultural background, she said she felt conflicted raising her voice to speak out against tobacco use.

In an interview, Benjamin said she realized the cultural impact on smoking in the American Indian population in the Pacific Northwest.

"We're going to go back to the Indian Health Service with smoking-cessation programs. In general, we're targeting the same youth everywhere," she said. "In a lot of communities, especially minority communities, it's how we look up to our elders. It was more pronounced there, how important their role models are."

Before budget cuts last year, Washington sent $400,000 annually to the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board and Seattle Area Indian Health Board to create tobacco-prevention programs, according to the state Department of Health.

Currently, the state sends $150,000 in federal funds to the American Indian Health Commission.

The American Lung Association peer health group, Teens Against Tobacco Use, lost all funding as part of state budget cuts.

"As secretary of health, it was a very, very painful decision to end the youth program," Selecky said. "I understand what they (legislators) had to do. The best thing will be to get a youth program again once the budget gets better."

Kibkabe Araya: 206-464-2266 or karaya@seattletimes.com.

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