There was a day Jenny Olendorff became sick of being “held captive” by tobacco.
“I smoked my last cigarette at my dad’s funeral 13 years ago and I told myself at that point that I am never going to touch one again,” she said. “It is a personal commitment to completely change your life and not be a slave to tobacco anymore because that is the way it can be.”
Now, as the program coordinator for the Peninsula Smokefree Partnership — a local tobacco prevention, cessation and education group serving the central Kenai Peninsula area — Olendorff hopes others will follow her example. Today, Olendorff and other agencies and individuals around the Peninsula will participate in the 36th annual Great American Smokeout, sponsored by the American Cancer Society.
In addition to giving out free quit kits and information, the Great American Smokeout is a day Olendorff hopes residents will make a plan to quit, or plan in advance and quit smoking that day — hopefully forever.
The reasons to quit are numerous, she said. She likened continued use of tobacco — smoking cigarettes or chewing tobacco — to a “slow suicide.”
Each year 440,000 Americans die from tobacco related use, she said. That amounts to about 1,200 people each day.
“That’s a public health crisis in my mind,” she said. “Think of three jumbo jet liners going down and crashing everyday. People would be in an uproar about that loss of life.”
In hopes of stemming the tide of the life-threatening addiction, Olendorff, the Peninsula Smokefree Partnership and the Dena’ina Health Clinic, along with others, will be giving out free quit kits between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. today at Dena’ina to those smokers or chewers ready to quit, or to those who would like to help a loved one quit.
The quit kits are available year round, Olendorff said, but the local Tobacco Intervention Network is making a big push to get the kits into residents’ hands in partnership with the Smokeout.
“Honestly any other day of the week we are available to guide people toward the quit line and give them free tobacco quit kits,” Olendorff said.
Deb Nyquist, wellness manager and tobacco treatment specialist with the Dena’ina Health Clinic, said the types of residents looking for quit kits runs the gamut — from 19-year-olds to those looking to give them to friends and family.
Nyquist said about 70 percent of people who smoke have the desire to quit smoking, but can’t.
“We have had to increase the number of tobacco treatment specialists that we have within the organization so that we can provide service to those folks who are being referred to us,” she said. “There’s a huge increase in the number of folks who are ready to quit because we are being more intentional about our work.”
The barrier to quitting is almost always the strong addictive nature of nicotine, which is found in tobacco products.
“It is known to be more addictive than heroin or cocaine,” she said. “The fact is that it is a legal product, so it is hard to make that choice.”
Olendorff said the average person who successfully quits smoking had tried an average of five previous times.
“Nicotine is incredibly addictive and so you have to be compassionate with that person who is using understanding it is a hard habit to break,” she said. “It is not easy and people do it many different ways.”
One of the most important pieces of the quit kit is getting the Alaska Quit Line number — 1-800-QUIT-NOW — in front of smokers and chewers, Olendorff said. Residents can enroll in the multiple-call program, which provides free cessation coaching and free nicotine replacement therapy for eight weeks to Alaskans over 18 years old.
According to the Alaska Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, Alaska’s adult smoking rate declined from 28 percent in 1996, to 19 percent in 2009. However, 43 percent of Alaska Natives currently use tobacco.
According to an Alaska Fast Facts publication, more Alaskans die each year from tobacco use than from suicide, motor vehicle accidents, liver disease, homicide and HIV/AIDS combined.
In the Gulf Coast region, including the Kenai Peninsula, 20 percent of adults smoked in 2007.
According to alaskaquitline.com, the number of diseases caused by smoking has expanded to include abdominal aortic aneurysm, acute myeloid leukemia, cervical cancer, kidney cancer, pancreatic cancer, pneumonia, periodontitis, and stomach cancer.
Those diseases are in addition to those previously known to be caused by smoking — bladder, esophageal, laryngeal, lung, oral, and throat cancers; chronic lung diseases; coronary heart and cardiovascular diseases; as well as reproductive effects and sudden infant death syndrome, according to the website.
Nyquist said Dena’ina has consistently increased local tobacco prevention outreach efforts throughout the last decade.
“We know that the only way we are going to help improve the lives of our patient clients is to also be reaching out to our community and their neighbors and family members who may not be our patient clients,” she said.
Olendorff said tobacco prevention and cessation has become her passion.
“It is not just a job,” she said. “We really genuinely care about people and want to see people quit a bad habit and live a healthy life.”