In a small conference room in downtown Anchorage, 17-year-old Roey Armstrong gathered 15 other teens and tweens into 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 nervously when it was their turn.
Youth came from villages like White Mountain, Chevak and New Stuyahok, all flown in by the Rural Community Action Program (RurAL CAP) for a weeklong training in late May to learn about the dangers of nicotine addiction. Although smoking rates have gone down in the state, many teenagers are vaping instead and some are using chewing tobacco or the newer form of nicotine pouches.
Peer relationships are really important to teenagers. So, the aim was to educate teens on 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 run the conference. She said learning from other teens can be powerful.
“We hear things from adults like every minute, every second of our day,” Edais said. “We’re in school, learning from adults. And for somebody your age to warn you about something, I feel like it’s more relatable.”
The tobacco and vaping industries have historically targeted ads toward young people for a reason. The vast majority of regular adult smokers started before they were 18. And the earlier people start smoking, the harder it is to quit. In Alaska, almost 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 Encouraging Alaskans’ Health, or YEAH.
Armstrong and Edais have both been teen ambassadors for YEAH for three years. They’ve learned a lot in that time about the science of addiction.
“An addiction can be formed in 10 seconds,” said Armstrong. “That’s all it takes.”
They’ve been trained on how advertisers and nicotine companies manipulate kids – placing vapes at eye level in stores and marketing candy-like flavors.
“They see young children and they see a dollar sign,” said Armstrong.
Edais explains that people vaping don’t fully grasp the potential harms of what they’re breathing in.
“[They think] it’s just some flavored air,” said Edais, “when it’s really like chemicals and metals going into your lungs.”
And they explained why young people are so vulnerable to addiction.
“I sound like my mom,” said Armstrong, “but your prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until you’re like 26.” The prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain that relates to decision making and impulse control. And 99% of daily adult smokers started before that crucial age of 26.
The prefrontal cortex may be something a parent or teacher would talk about, but Armstrong has gotten really good at sharing complex information in a relatable way. And that’s the point of YEAH.
Charlie Ess heads YEAH’s peer ambassador program. He said he relies on teens like Armstrong because belonging is so important at their age.
“They have that relatability,” Ess said. “And they have street credibility with their peers. So, they tend to get the attention of young people a lot better than an old guy like me.”
In some areas of the state, teens are likely to have tried chewing tobacco or iqmik, also known as “blackbull,” which is a tobacco and ash mix common in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. But, Ess said vaping is common all over Alaska. And he says since it’s still new technology, we don’t know the long term health effects yet.
“We know there’s metals in them,” said Ess. “We know there’s vegetable oils in them. There’s all kinds of things that aren’t something you would put in your body ordinarily.”
But the fruit and dessert flavors of e-cigarettes can make vaping seem harmless. And, Edais says she 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 side of TikTok,” said Edais, “that’s like people showing their cool ‘ghosts’ with their vapes.”
Edais said kids sell vapes over social media too. But, she said social media can also help people quit. She said she’s seen powerful videos from people posting about just that.
“I’ll just be scrolling and then I’ll see this girl like putting a bunch of vapes in a cup of water,” said Edais. “And she was like, I’m quitting, guys. Day three, it’s hard.”
Out of the 15 kids at the conference, Armstrong hopes a few of them will want to become peer educators like her eventually. But she said even if they decide not to, they can make a difference.
“They can go back to their probably small communities and small villages,” said Armstrong, “and maybe tell people and share it.”
With all their training, Armstrong and Edais know they can’t make anyone stop vaping or say “no” to trying a cigarette. They can just give people the information they’ve learned and hope it sticks.