Peer pressure gets a bad rap for its influence on youth, especially when it comes to picking up harmful habits like smoking. But Joseph Cole, a high school senior at New Schools at Carver in Atlanta, is using peer pressure for good. He and a group of fellow high school students are urging their peers to pledge to stand out, speak up and seize control against tobacco.
|Sean Smith, Desha Smarr, Deshanda Smarr,
Cantrell Foster, Rachel Kelly, and Destiny Brown
use Kick Butts Day to educate peers and adults about the harmful health consequences of tobacco use.
“Taking the tobacco-free pledge means I have made the best choice for me by not giving into peer pressure,” said Cole, one of the youth leaders of H.E.A.R.T. to H.E.L.P., a student coalition raising tobacco awareness in Atlanta.
The students are talking about their tobacco-free pledges to celebrate Kick Butts Day, a national day of activism that encourages youth to stay tobacco-free and urges strong action to protect kids from tobacco.
Every day, more than 3,000 kids under age 18 try smoking for the first time and 700 kids become regular smokers, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. In Georgia, about 93,000 high school students and 38,000 middle school students reported using some form of tobacco in 2011. Peer-to-peer conversation is the best method to prevent young people from picking up that first cigarette.
H.E.A.R.T. to H.E.L.P. has started the conversation this year. On March 15, Cole and his fellow youth leaders Cantrell Foster and Deshanda Smarr led their group in promoting Kick Butts Day at this year’s 16th annual Tiger Relays at Morehouse College in Atlanta. In the B.T. Harvey Stadium, they educated hundreds of young track and field athletes along with spectators and coaches on the importance of pledging to remain tobacco-free.
Foster and Smarr said they took the event as an opportunity to be tobacco-free role models.
“In my opinion when a person takes the pledge, they are not only pledging to be tobacco-free but drug-free, too,” said Foster, a senior at North Atlanta High School. “Tobacco is a gateway to drugs. People tune in to the message and receive the information and are quick to take the pen to take the pledge.”
“Taking the pledge is a big deal because it shows that tobacco is not in control of my life. I feel like taking the pledge shows that there are people who support the fight against tobacco,” said Smarr, a junior at New Schools at Carver.
Denise Smith is the project coordinator for the H.E.A.R.T. (Health, Education, Awareness and Research on Tobacco) Coalition, which leads the H.E.A.R.T. to H.E.L.P. students in their Kick Butts Day campaign. Smith said having students reach out to other students about tobacco use is one of the best ways for H.E.A.R.T. to do its work.
“We are helping to enforce the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s anti-tobacco policy to restrict athletes from using tobacco, as well as helping to reach youth and families who reside in the City of Atlanta,” she said.
On March 19, Cole, Foster and Smarr will celebrate Kick Butts Day by taking their activism to the streets. They will conduct environmental scans of the tobacco advertising in their neighborhoods to raise awareness of the exposure to tobacco ads and products in southwest Atlanta, specifically at local convenience stores and gas stations near their schools and parks.
Smith said the data the students collect will also be presented to local policymakers.
“This strategy will assist with a larger policy change to see the reduction of tobacco and alcohol advertising in store windows within the City of Atlanta,” she said. “We are working toward the passage of a tobacco-free ordinance for Fulton County Parks and Recreation Centers.”
The Georgia Department of Public Health’s Tobacco Use Prevention Program offers a number of services to keep Georgia’s youth like Cole, Foster and Smarr tobacco-free. The 100-percent Tobacco-Free Schools model policy prohibits tobacco products on school campuses; 97 of Georgia’s 181 school districts have adopted the model policy, protecting more than 1.2 million students. DPH also offers the Georgia Tobacco Quit Line on a 24/7 basis to smokers ages 13 and older who are ready to quit.
To learn more about Kick Butts Day events throughout the state, click here.