Local youth take a stand against tobacco use

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Defy the Lie Louisiana recognized the 18-annual Kick Butts Day March 20 and 21 by hosting one of the more than 1,200 anti-smoking celebrations going on across the country.

“In Louisiana, the teen tobacco use rate is higher than the national average,” said Akia Davis with Defy the Lies Louisiana. “How do people end up smoking? Their parents may smoke, they may hang out with other smokers or their parents allow them to smoke.”

The organization works to expose tobacco manufacturers’ marketing tactics and those practices that target children and youth and get more people involved in its anti-smoking campaign. The group regularly hosts events aimed at reducing teen smoking, and the group’s Kick Butts event at the North Terrebonne Branch Library in Gray featured a panel of Defy the Lies members and a representative from Nicholls State University’s Fresh Campus campaign.

The group spoke to about 50 teens and adults at the tobacco marketing town hall Thursday, and the event was organized by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and sponsored by United Health Foundation. Speakers focused on tobacco marketing tactics, and the event also featured a balloon release in memory of people who have died from tobacco-related diseases.

“Teens are more influenced by advertisements and peer pressure,” Davis said. “Marlboro, Camel and Newport are the biggest tobacco advertisers, and (even) 11-and-12-year-olds are smoking. We must change that. Many convenience stores have cigarette advertisements next to candy displays. These ads are at children’s eye level, and there are also cigarette ads on the outside of the building.”

According to statistics from the Federal Trade Commission, tobacco companies spend more than $8 billion a year to market tobacco products. Tobacco companies have also started producing small cigars that come in fruit and candy flavors such as strawberry, vanilla, peach and apple, and these products have mass appeal to children.

Locally, members of the campaign visit convenience stores and fill out Counter Pop Surveys to track where tobacco advertisements are placed, how many there are, what store items the displays are next to and what type of tobacco products are advertised. By gathering this information, the group hopes to change all tobacco companies’ point-of-sale advertising tactics, and the group also hosts events in public places to draw attention to the number of people affected by tobacco use.

“Just a few weeks ago, we had an event at Southland Mall,” said Defy the Lies speaker Nicholas Robinson. “We placed 18 pairs of shoes in one location to signify the 18 people who die each day from tobacco-related illnesses.”

The mall, a popular place for local teens, was an appropriate place for the group to highlight tobacco-related deaths, especially since 21.8 percent of the state’s high school students smoke.

Nicholls has also brought attention to the fight against tobacco in January 2011 by becoming the first university in Louisiana to go tobacco-free, joining more than 400 other college campuses across the country that are also tobacco free.

“Teens think smoking is cool, and 18 to 24 year olds are youngest age group that tobacco companies can legally target,” said Kristi Calvaruso with Nicholls Fresh Campus. “This ban has had a positive effect on those who live, work and attend Nicholls. Sure, there are challenges with enforcement and compliance, but it takes time. We want to put people’s health first.”

While the trio are targeting youth, Terrebonne Parish Councilwoman Arlanda Williams is looking to the community.

“What can we do?” Williams asked the crowd. “I have put petitions in local churches to have menthol cigarettes banned. Most smokers are addicted to menthol cigarettes. There are more than 600,000 premature deaths each year due to menthol in cigarettes. In Terrebonne Parish, we have a high rate of SIDS. There are a lot of young pregnant women out there that are still puffing on that stick.”

“My grandma smoked,” Williams continued. “Some of my cousins asked her to stop. One of them gave her a pamphlet on why she shouldn’t smoke, my other cousin would start crying when she lit a cigarette and I even tore her cigarettes up. After a health scare, she finally quit smoking, and it has been 30 years since she has smoked. If you have friends who continue to smoke, you will see less and less of them over the years because they will start to get sick from smoking.”

Like Williams became involved in trying to get her grandmother to kick the habit, she asked the adults in the crowd engage themselves in getting to the root of why some children turn to cigarettes, drugs and alcohol.

“It’s more than cigarettes,” she said. “I could stand here and spit numbers out all day, but the issue is the same all across the country – we need to address mental health.”

The councilwoman applauded the Defy the Lies Campaign members for reaching out to their peers, especially with efforts made against menthol and other flavored cigarettes.

“I am more than impressed with program,” Williams said. “This organization is much-needed in the community. As you are leaders, lead by example. This program helps to nip the problem in the bud at the bottom. Some teens think that smoking is cool, but they are ignorant, putting that foolishness in their mouths. They think it is fashionable and tastes good, but they don’t know what they are putting in their mouth is bad.”

“People in the community do not want to talk about this until the death rates here are unacceptable,” Williams added. “We need to defy the lie that smoking is cool. Having cancer is not cool.”

Defy the Lies campaign members and area youth prepare to release ballons at the Kick Butts Day event at the North Terrebonne Branch Library in Gray. About 50 teens and adults attended the tobacco marketing town hall last Thursday.