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Up In Smoke

 
Fact one: A record number of teens are fighting to stop kids from smoking. 
 
Fact two: More teens than ever are lighting up. To the rescue? The Power Anti-Puff Girls!

You pride yourself on being a pretty smart chick, right?  You don't quake in the face of math homework. And you know if you wait a couple weeks before you splurge on those cute Steve Madden sandals, they'll be marked down to half price.

So, if you're so smart, why would you smoke cigarettes? Despite known side effects, like guaranteed death, smoking is on the rise among teens. In 1991, 27.5 percent of high schoolers had smoked in the last 30 days. In 1999, that percentage rose to nearly 35 percent.

All this wouldn't be so shocking if it weren't for one key factor—over $250 billion was given to state governments by the tobacco industry to do things like educate teens about the dangers of smoking.

Some heartening news? Teens are stepping out to make a change. Meet the girls behind the smoking gun:

Sarah Schulman, 16
Sarah was only 7 when she saw images on TV of a smoker’s lungs covered in black tumors. Monumentally grossed out, Sarah wrote a letter without any help from her parents to the Texas Department of Health to ask how to get involved in the state’s campaign against tobacco use. You might think the government would ignore some pesky kid, right?

Well, about a month later, the Department of Health invited Sarah to participate in “undercover buys.”  She would go to convenience stores, hotels, restaurants and vending machines, while state health officials and police monitored whether or not she was asked for proper ID before buying tobacco. Since the legal purchasing age is 18, you’d think most places would do a double take at a kid slapping down cash for a pack of smokes. Surprise! It seems the idea of a young teen smoking like a chimney doesn’t bother too many tobacco vendors.

Sarah’s latest project is Game Over, a tobacco use prevention program she started with a grant from the American Cancer Society. Game Over helps students from first to 11th grades plan activities—like visiting throat cancer patients at a local hospital—to raise awareness about the dangers of tobacco.

Amy Wesolowski, 13
Another group going to war against cigarette manufacturers is C.O.S.T. (Children Opposed to Smoking Tobacco). C.O.S.T.'s mission is to get tobacco out of the hands of teens and children. Noticing cigarettes are often in the same aisle as candy and toys in local stores, C.O.S.T members, Amy lobby their town councils to ban all cigarette self-serve areas and vending machines.

Amy also speaks out at community college fairs and other educational events, where C.O.S.T. sets up information booths to get the anti-tobacco message out. Reaching out to older students isn’t a big deal to Amy. “In my opinion,” she says, “you are never to young to be an activist.” 

Krissy Chemier, 14
Krissy is all fired up about REBEL (Reaching Everyone by Exposing Lies), a group that has united teens against tobacco use from all over the state of New Jersey.  REBEL encourages teens to think about the motives of companies that market harmful products to young people. “Tobacco manufacturers don’t care about us,” says Krissy. “All they want is our money.”

To ensure that no one cashes in on kids, REBEL has launched a letter-writing campaign to people in high places (like state senators and executives at convenience store chains like WaWa) to ask that a law be passed prohibiting mini-marts from putting cigarette ads in their windows. What keeps Krissy involved? "Eighteen percent of the eighth graders at my school smoke," she says.

Dana Davis, 17
Dana got involved with tobacco prevention and awareness seven years ago after her grandfather died from cancer, brought on by a lifetime of tobacco use. “My grandfather used to tell us stories of how he smoked cigarettes when he was a kid,” says Dana, “and he even smoked while lying in the hospital bed.” Dana figured if kids could smoke so easily back then and get hooked, what about now? She decided to teach kids about the dangers of smoking by starting her own program called Dana and Company.

Dana uses her love of singing (she's also a country recording artist), storytelling and her unique talent as a ventriloquist to get the message across to kids that they don’t have to smoke. “I try to show them, through stories involving my puppets and my grandfather, that you don’t have to ever start.” Dana and her sidekick puppet Ruth have visited schools all over the country, talking with more than 80,000 kids and teens.

Dana was also instrumental in planning a billboard and media campaign advocating the use of her state's share of the tobacco settlement money for health care and health-related programs.  As part of the settlement, the tobacco companies had to take down their old billboards and replace them with new anti-smoking ones.

By: Audrey D. Brashich

POSTED ON 12/30/2009 7:01:00 AM

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