Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


april 21, 2001 - Issue 34



Stop the Pop


Native health officials declare war on soda
Campaign hopes to reverse trend of obesity, diabetes, tooth decay


 By Ann Potempa Anchorage Daily News


Art by Bob Annesley

People living in rural Alaska communities are increasingly becoming obese and diabetic or they've got a mouthful of rotten teeth.

Health officials say soda is to blame and the only way to curb the health problems is to "Stop the Pop."

"You have 32 teeth maximum in your mouth, 28 until you get your wisdom teeth," said Dr. Rowena Mandanas, a Nome dentist with the U.S. Public Health Service. "I've been to villages where kids have 19 cavities."

Mandanas works with schools in the Nome area to distribute toothbrushes and toothpaste to students and to make sure the students are using them. There's a lot of tooth decay in her area because many people don't brush their teeth, she said. Drinking soda means even more problems.

The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and the Alaska Native Health Board this week called for a war on soda pop after learning that consumption of the sugary, carbonated beverage may be rising in rural and Native communities statewide.

The Alaska Native Medical Center's dental department and the state's "Stop the Pop" campaign surveyed a few hundred people about soda consumption. The study is still in progress, but preliminary data shows that more than half the Alaska Natives who were surveyed drink at least one can of pop a day. One-fifth of those surveyed drink at least two cans.

Patty Ferman, a dietitian with the Bristol Bay Area Health Corp., regularly visits schools in the Dillingham area and asks how much soda the students drink every day.

"Quite a few of them drink six or more," she said.

The Native health organizations are attacking soda on a number of fronts. The Native health consortium and board voted to reduce pop consumption on the medical campus by 50 percent. Also, they are sending letters to every state school district, individual schools, companies that sell soda and many community stores to ask them to help reduce consumption in rural communities and among Alaska Natives in particular. To drive the issue home, the organizations displayed a mock report card issued to soda pop companies.

"They're basically going to get two D's," said Don Kashevaroff, board chairman of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. "One for decay and one for diabetes."

Attempts were made to contact Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola bottling companies of Alaska. A representative from Coca-Cola said he was aware of the campaign, but referred all calls to the Atlanta office, which was already closed.

The organizations are trying to make sure vending machines in the state are filled with bottled water, milk and healthy fruit juices instead of only pop and sugar-laden beverages. They're also encouraging people to return to eating traditional foods.

Health officials Monday said that not all pop is linked to health problems. The worrisome varieties are the high-sugar pops, sports drinks and fruit drinks. Diet soda, however, has artificial sweeteners and very few calories so it is not linked to tooth decay, obesity and other health problems, doctors said.

Why are Alaska Natives drinking more pop today? Health officials considered some possibilities. In some villages, water is hard to come by. Residents who don't live near a water source melt snow or ice or rely on imported water, said Cynthia Navarrette, president and chief executive officer of the Native Health Board. Perhaps it's more convenient for them to visit the local store and buy a can of soda, she said.

Soda, though expensive in villages, might be cheaper than water. At an Alaska Commercial Co. store in Dillingham, a 12-pack of 12-ounce cans of soda can cost $6.48 on sale or almost $9 at regular price, said John Strickland, who works at the store. In contrast, the same amount of liquid packed into a six-pack of 24-ounce bottles of water costs $9.15. The same amount packaged in 20-ounce bottles of water costs $9.30.

Alaska doctors and dentists pointed to data that show sugary soda pop can be a health hazard. One in five children seen at the Alaska Native Medical Center dental clinic has severe decay, said Dr. Jeffrey Carolla, a dentist at the clinic.

The Harvard School of Public Health and the Children's Hospital in Boston recently concluded a study, which was published in the medical journal The Lancet, showing that the chance of a child becoming obese went up significantly with increased consumption of soft drinks.

Increased rates of obesity can also lead to a rise in diabetes, medical professionals say. There is evidence diabetes was rare 30 years ago among the Eskimo population, said Dr. Julian Naylor, a diabetes consultant with Indian Health Services.

"Twenty-five years later we are faced in Alaska with a tidal wave of diabetes," she said.



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