By Meagan Petty, high school freshman, and Noble Steenbergen, high school senior 

We are members of the Monroe County CARES Youth Prevention Ambassadors. We are drug prevention advocates from south central Kentucky. Our group works to reduce use of tobacco, alcohol, prescription drugs, and marijuana among our peers. One area that our group has had a lot of success in is tobacco prevention. Each year we participate in the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids Kick Butts Day and we do media campaigns with newspaper articles, ads, radio PSAs, and digital billboards.

One of our greatest successes in this area of prevention was making our school grounds 100 percent tobacco-free in 2016. It was a process. We did one-on-one interviews with our school board members to gauge their interest on the policy change. We attended school board meetings to educate them on the issue. Finally, we asked them to vote on changing the policy, and it passed unanimously. Not everyone chooses to follow our policy, but we are working diligently to increase awareness and compliance among students, staff, and visitors, and we feel we are making progress. But, there is always more work to be done, and we are passionate about continuing this work.

We believe that 100 percent tobacco-free schools are important because they are proven to reduce youth tobacco use. It also reduces exposure to deadly secondhand smoke. It ensures that adults act as a good role model for students and keeps consistent with lessons that are being taught in the classroom. Plus, it reduces litter on campus from cigarette butts. As of this month, 74 Kentucky school districts are covered by 100 percent tobacco-free school policies. That means 58 percent of students in the state are covered.

The time has come to protect the rest of our children and make all school grounds in the state 100 percent tobacco-free, including e-cigarettes. It was important to us that we included e-cigarettes in our tobacco-free policy, especially in hindsight as the use of e-cigarettes has skyrocketed among youth. And we want to emphasize that 99 percent of e-cigarettes contain nicotine therefore they ARE a tobacco product.

Due to the extreme increase in the use of e-cigarettes, especially Juuls, in our school, we decided that our Ambassador group needed to place our focus on combating this problem. Our group has been working since the start of this school year to educate ourselves on the topic so that we can help our fellow classmates stop using these products and keep younger students from ever starting. We’ve been committed to raising awareness about the dangers of e-cigarettes, changing the culture among our peers, and advocating for changes in our school, community, and statewide. We understand that education is key, and we are trying to share factual information, but we also know that true and lasting impact can only be made through policy change.

I, like most kids my age, at first thought e-cigarettes were OK to use and didn’t harm you. I even asked my dad, who supervises the juvenile justice center in my hometown, if he was able to buy me an e-cigarette because I thought they seemed cool to have and harmless to use. That is until he told me how much nicotine they contain and that can be much worse than regular cigarettes.

– Meagan Petty

Some people even think that switching over from cigarettes to e-cigarettes will help them trade in a deadly habit for a new harmless one. This shows that people lack the knowledge of knowing how dangerous they can be, which is why we are trying to inform youth and our peers about the dangers and risks of e-cigarettes. Teens these days have been tricked by listening to others about all types of fruit and candy flavors there are and not focusing on the negative consequences that they cause. We see so many people daily, even sometimes in class, using Juuls. Teachers do all they can to keep it from happening but it is so easily hid because of their size and the fact that they look so similar to USB drives.

Here are some of the big facts that we’ve learned about e-cigarettes since working as a group on this issue:

  • Teens aren’t smoking cigarettes as much anymore, but the growing popularity of e-cigarettes, like vapes and Juuls, is putting teens at risk of nicotine addiction.
  • E-cigarettes don’t just put off water vapor, like some of us thought. The aerosol produced actually contains harmful substances like heavy metals, tiny particles, and chemicals that can cause lung disease and cancer.
  • E-cigarette companies are disguising nicotine as delicious-sounding desserts, like cotton candy and fruity pebbles, to entice youth taste buds.
  • Teens who use e-cigarettes now are twice as likely to become cigarette smokers within one year.

To put it as clearly as we can, e-cigarettes are nicotine disguised as dessert in a personalized stick. Parents and teachers don’t understand what these devices are and that they’re dangerous, so kids are using them right under adults noses. It’s been said many times that the future lies in the hands of youth, and this particular group of youth is working hard to ensure that our future is safe from the dangers of things like e-cigarettes. We will not allow ourselves and our generation to be used as guinea pigs for tobacco and e-cigarette companies.

We urge Kentucky legislators to consider making all public school grounds in the state 100 percent tobacco-free, including e-cigarettes, protecting the youth of our Commonwealth in this 2019 legislative session.

Read the Monroe County CARES Youth Prevention Ambassadors’ op-ed in the Courier Journal in December 2018 here. Learn more on the Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children policy priority, Help Kids Grow Up In Healthy School Environments By Enacting a Statewide Tobacco-Free School Campus Policy, here. Check out the infographic on recent focus groups with Kentucky high school students on the surge in e-cigarette use among youth here. Stay up-to-date on HB 11, SB 27, and other Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children priorities that are good for kids on our Kentucky General Assembly Bill Tracker

Meagan Petty and Noble Steenbergen joined advocates and leaders in Frankfort on January 22, 2019 to advocate for tobacco-free school campuses. Watch the event via the Coalition of a Smoke-Free Tomorrow Facebook page.