By Morgan Wittman Gramann
Former YES! Youth Staff, Coalition Manager at the North Carolina Alliance for Health
In early 2006 I met Aidil Hill, an adult leader at Youth Empowered Solutions (then Question Why Youth Empowerment Center), during my lunch period at C.E. Jordan High School in Durham, North Carolina. She told me that my peers were becoming smokers at an alarming rate and that I could do something about it. Based on that conversation in my school’s cafeteria I became a youth leader at YES!.
Every few weekends my fellow youth leaders and I would wake up early, stand in front of a room of 10-30 of our peers, and tell them how cigarettes have over 4,000 chemicals, including cyanide and arsenic. We told them how chewing tobacco could give them oral, esophageal, and pancreatic cancer. It was an exciting opportunity at that time, but it was not until I reflected on my time at YES! in college that I realized just how much it had meant to me and how many skills I had gained.
Because of the skills I learned and the confidence I gained while working at YES! I was able to continue to advocate for tobacco use prevention throughout high school and into college. I was also afforded enormous opportunities that I would not have had elsewhere. I met United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. I advocated for youth health in front of United States Congressmen. I helped plan a national conference on youth health. It was because of the tobacco use prevention program funding that each of these opportunities was possible.
YES! not only empowered me, but it also inspired me. I attended law school in order to continue to build on the advocacy skills that I first learned in high school while working at YES!. This is precisely why, having received my JD, I wanted to move home to Durham—the place where it all began for me and for the tobacco industry—to continue the important work of advocating for the health of young people in North Carolina, this time with the North Carolina Alliance for Health.
In 2011, the North Carolina General Assembly cut all state funding for youth tobacco prevention programing. Without this funding young people are missing out on the important opportunity that I had—the opportunity to become advocates for their own health. What’s more is they are missing the chance to learn from their peers about the dangers of tobacco use. As a result, more and more teens are becoming addicted tobacco users every day. If you need further convincing that tobacco use prevention funding is essential to North Carolina and the health if its citizens, let’s look at the numbers.
Tobacco use among high school students steadily declined throughout the early 2000s, from 38.3% in 2000 to 25.8% in 2009. In these years, the Health and Wellness Trust Fund was receiving just over $17 million a year to fund teen tobacco use prevention programs in North Carolina. This money came from the approximately $137.5 million North Carolina receives every year as part of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (MSA).
Then, in 2011, funding for teen tobacco use prevention programs was eliminated and the Health and Wellness Trust Fund was abolished. By 2013, teen tobacco use in North Carolina was on the rise once again, increasing 3.9% from the 2011 rates. E-cigarette use by North Carolina high school students had risen a staggering 352%, from 1.7% to 7.7%.
In 2015, North Carolina is still moving backwards. Tobacco use continues to be the number one cause of preventable death in this state. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids estimates that without tobacco use prevention programs youth smoking will continue to increase by 2.5% each year. That is, more than 13,180 youth will grow up to become addicted adult smokers and 4,370 more kids will die prematurely from a smoking-related disease.
But, here is the real kicker. Tobacco prevention funding from the MSA was costing North Carolina taxpayers nothing. The money was coming directly from Big Tobacco. Now, without such funding, North Carolina taxpayers will bear the burden of the additional $7.2 billion in future health care costs associated with tobacco use, stemming from $3.81 billion in direct medical costs related to smoking each year. Thus, by cutting tobacco use prevention funding, our lawmakers have effectively cost taxpayers billions of dollars, have deprived youth of invaluable empowerment and advocacy opportunities, and have ensured that the youth tobacco use epidemic will continue in North Carolina.
There is, however, an easy solution: restore the tobacco use prevention programs, which were so effectively curbing teen tobacco use in North Carolina. Just $17.3 million, or 12.8% of the MSA funds coming to the state every year for this purpose will restore these programs. Ask the General Assembly to once again appropriate MSA funds to tobacco use prevention to save billions of dollars, thousands of lives, and to empower North Carolina youth.
Morgan Wittman Gramann is Coalition Manager at the North Carolina Alliance for Health. For more information contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919.463.8329.