by Jacob, YES! Youth Staff
My brother smokes. I was a nosy 12-year-old, and, inevitably, I found the lighters and the discarded cartons tucked in the crevices of the cacophony of his room. He hid it well, for a time, but he was over 18, legally allowed to make the decision regardless of its myriad health consequences for himself and for me. He started 5 years ago, and it has plagued him ever since. He started 5 years ago, and he has wanted to quit every day. He started 5 years ago, and he is exhaling the life out of his body.
He is a statistic, a tiny drop in the ever-growing pool of young people using tobacco. In 2016, CDC reported almost 1 in 4 high school-aged males used tobacco products, and while use of conventional cigarettes is down to single digits among youth, e-cigarettes have made up the difference. An estimated 15% of teens are using e-cigs, and conventional tobacco use is down 17% since 2000. Tobacco is once again a staple of teenage culture, spread through the web of social media.
As long as there’s been cigarettes, there has been somebody making money off an addiction that is more addictive than heroin. Whether it’s through predatory marketing or political sponsorship, somebody has been working hard to keep tobacco prevalent. Throughout the political arena big tobacco has lobbied to ensure the optimal success of tobacco. With the ability to spend a million-dollars an hour for adverting, tobacco companies spare no expenses. Even prominent black members of Congress have received campaign contributions from Lorillard, a North Carolina tobacco company.
As a result, low-income communities are particularly the victim of intense, and successful, advertising campaigns. For example, nearly 3 out of 4 people who are experiencing homelessness use tobacco products. The leveraging of wealth has perpetuated a system of intense inequality and preventive death.
The CEO of R.J. Reynolds, one of the nation’s largest tobacco companies, earned almost $13 million in salary and stock compensation; almost a $1 million an hour are spent on marketing tobacco products; $21 million was spent in 2017 alone on tobacco lobbying. Money matters. And the tobacco industry has a lot of it.
So, this problem is not about individual choices. It is about the systems implicit within the issue. These systems are forcing America’s youth into a physical dependence on a drug lining the pockets of Big Tobacco (and elected officials). Upon learning this information, I asked the obvious—how can I change any of this?
I work for an organization called Youth Empowered Solutions (YES!) which addresses the growing epidemic of teenage tobacco use. The truth is young people are uniquely positioned to lead this movement because my voice as a 16-year-old carries more weight than that of a 30-something in a high school health class. Moreover, to address this issue most effectively, the knowledge contributing to these systems of inequality must become common, and the tools to combat these systems must become demystified.
YES! does this through a nationally recognized Youth Empowerment Model© comprised of three equally important elements: skill development, critical awareness, and opportunity. Skill development is the process of training, practicing, and perfecting the skills needed as a young person to successfully advocate for change. Critical awareness is the knowledge and understanding of important issues. And opportunity simply refers to young people having the chance to demonstrate their skills and knowledge through various mediums, be it presentations, blog posts or advocating for policy change. Adults often hold the resources and power needed to empower youth through these components, and when it comes to tobacco prevention, youth empowerment is the only sustainable solution. It is much simpler to prevent a young person from never picking up a cigarette than to convince an addict to put one down, and to reach youth, we need youth to lead the way.
There is a quote by Lilla Watson which reads, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
What are you willing to sacrifice for tobacco?
 “Smoking & Tobacco Use.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26 Mar. 2018