Originally published July 1, 2013
When middle school students in Southeast Health District 9-2 attended the Healthy Schools/Communities Leadership Summit recently, they were motivated by the $1,500 incentive for their schools. However, they received so much more.
Thanks to the work of Youth Empowered Solutions, known as YES!, students learned about strategies to change policies, addressing tobacco-free schools, smoke-free communities and healthy lifestyles. YES!'s tobacco prevention work is part of a statewide teen tobacco prevention education, advocacy and training movement.
About four months after the summit, middle school students Anna Tiller, Carolyn Lesseig, Kayla Petrowicz and Jacob Peavy presented their 100 percent tobacco-free plan to the Pierce County Board of Education. They received support from teachers and community leaders Holly Ratliff, Terry Tatum, Jason Rubenbauer and Gail Seifert. Students succeeded and board members voted to adopt the 100 percent tobacco-free policy for all Pierce County schools.
"When youth are empowered, their voices go a long way," said Ambi Bess, the district's health promotion coordinator. "The YES! organization helped us support our youth in positive change efforts."
The policy means the use of tobacco products will be prohibited by anyone, including students, staff and visitors on school grounds or at school events, both indoors and outdoors, at all times. The next step is implementation and adherence.
After years of waiting for the board's approval, Roger Naylor, the district's director of public relations, can breathe a deep sigh of relief.
"It's been a long time coming," said Naylor. "Five years ago the school board considered the policy for 100 percent tobacco-free schools. They kind of adopted a volunteer policy but no one enforced it. Our health district staff was happy they took this first step, but they needed to take another step and make the campus tobacco-free for all."
The policy's adoption is a major milestone for this part of Georgia.
Pierce County has a long history of tobacco farming as a major agricultural product since the 1920s. That has been changing in recent years according to Naylor. The last tobacco warehouse closed in 2008 and one of the tobacco warehouses has been converted into a church.
"There are less than a dozen tobacco farmers left in Pierce County," said Naylor. "This is a major shift over the last 10 years."
For years, families earned a living through tobacco farming, which made the passage of a tobacco-free policy in Pierce County that much tougher than in other parts of the state. Additionally, tobacco use has been part of pastimes; many of the winning coaches dip tobacco during football games and other sporting events. And spit tobacco is very popular among male students in this part of Georgia.
The policy change comes seven years after minor league baseball player Rick Bender visited students at Pierce County Middle School. He shared his personal story as an athlete and his battle with jaw cancer from spit tobacco use.
According to the 2011 Georgia Youth Tobacco Survey from the Georgia Department of Public Health, about 10 percent of high school students in Georgia who have ever smoked admit to smoking their first whole cigarette before they were 11 years old or before sixth grade or middle school.
"That's why I reached out to middle school students to attend the leadership youth summit," said Bess. "I wanted to reach them early and to stop tobacco use and spit tobacco among middle school students before they reached high school."
According to Naylor, Pierce County is the 92nd school district in Georgia out of 181 to adopt the policy. Thus, there are approximately 1.2 million students protected while on school property from tobacco use and exposure to the dangers of secondhand smoke.
In addition to Pierce, nine out of 16 counties in the Southeast Health District -- Charlton, Brantley, Wayne, Ware, Bulloch, Evans, Tattnall and Coffee -- have adopted the 100 percent tobacco-free policy. This covers roughly 15,000 students.
Naylor and Bess are optimistic more change is on the way in the remaining seven counties: Jeff Davis, Candler, Toombs, Appling, Bacon, Atkinson and Clinch.
"It is a great feeling not only for our youth but for us as youth leaders to see the kids stand up for what they believe in and advocate for themselves and their communities," said Bess.