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Young people are influenced by their parents and teachers, but most powerfully by their peers. Whether it’s the clothes they wear, the cell phones they purchase, or the television programs they watch, students are won over by their friends. Smoking cigarettes is no different. If smoking is seen as cool among the in-crowd and among those they spend time with, young people will likely experiment with tobacco products, and possibly get hooked. If it’s seen as stupid, unhealthy, and uncool, they won’t. Today’s youth, in other words, are not part of the problem; they are part of the solution.

That’s the central thrust of the Best Practices Guide User Guide; Youth Engagement-State and Community Interventions available from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Office on Smoking and Health, and the Center for Tobacco Policy Research at Washington University in St. Louis. It is part of a user guide series aimed at assisting local communities in building their own effective tobacco control programs.

We know from a 1994 Surgeon General Report that smoking tobacco is usually initiated before the age 18. We also know that people develop their instinct to rebel and stand up to authority at an early age. The goal of anti-smoking advocates is to have them rebel not by taking up smoking as an act of defiance, but to abstain from smoking as a common sense protest against a tobacco industry that wants to take their dollars, and their health.

Youth have credibility with their peers. They bring energy and honesty into anti-smoking campaigns. They have insight that adults don’t have into the factors that make their friends start smoking in the first place, and therefore can best develop strategies that will persuade them to quit, or not to begin smoking at all.

In the past, tobacco control intervention among young people was primarily focused on providing health information. The thinking was that if given the truth about the medical consequences of smoking, they would make the right decision and avoid using tobacco. Basically, adults used scare tactics to demonstrate the negative health effects of tobacco.

More recently, however, communities have begun to recognize that young people are primarily influenced not by statistics, but by their social environment – their peers, their family, and the media. Community organizations that work on comprehensive tobacco control goals have realized that their efforts to minimize tobacco use are much more effective when young people are involved.

Most schools and youth groups have all sorts of volunteer opportunities, so the first goal is to put anti-smoking programs on the docket. Experience has found that among the most effective programs are:

  • Classroom-based life skill activities and peer resistance training.
  • Using social networking sites to recruit and organize.
  • Letter-writing campaigns and meetings with state legislators.
  • Attending school board meetings to promote tobacco-free school policies.
  • Promoting policies that restrict retail advertising.
  • Collecting signatures for petitions
  • Testifying at city and county council meetings.
  • Advertisements in school publications.
  • Counter-marketing campaigns, including PSAs, billboards, and websites.
  • Generating news coverage of “Smoke-Out” days and other tobacco control activities.

As young people learn they are being manipulated by the tobacco industry, they want to fight back. Among the case studies highlighted in the CDC’s Best Practices Guide:

  • The Florida “truth” campaign, considered the first advertising campaign to effectively demonstrate deceptive tobacco industry marketing tactics and highlight the importance of engaging youth.
  • In Hawaii, student groups on “Kick Butts Day” rallied at the state capital to urge lawmakers to increase taxes on tobacco products.
  • In Yolo County, California, a youth coalition calling itself YUFA STAR (Youth United For Action Showing Tobacco Ain’t Right) mobilized the community to restrict minors’ access to tobacco products.
  • Oklahoma’s Students Working Against Tobacco (SWAT), a statewide, youth-led movement that advocates for clean indoor air policies and smoke-free schools. It also developed a tribute wall dedicated to people affected by tobacco.
  • Reality Check, a statewide youth-led campaign that partnered with the New York State Attorney General’s Office and two major magazine publishers to initiate production of tobacco-free classroom editions of Time, Newsweek, People, and Sports Illustrated.

Young people join tobacco control efforts for many of the same reasons adults do. Some young people have an aversion to the smell of cigarette smoke, some have family members who have died from tobacco-related causes, others are themselves victims of diseases caused by secondhand smoke. Whatever the reason for their passion for tobacco control, one thing is clear from history: young people are ready to stand up for their beliefs, rise up against social injustice, and make a difference in peoples’ lives. It is important that they are not overlooked as valuable participants in tobacco control efforts and other important public health issues.

Tobacco companies have a track record for targeting certain populations to encourage tobacco use, so activities that seek to include youth are especially important for groups that have traditionally been excluded and ignored from health promotion. Teachers and school administrators can successfully mobilize anti-smoking efforts, but a better method is usually for students to recruit other students. Among the best places for that to occur are

  • Online social networking sites
  • Clubs and school groups
  • Community events and parks, pools, concerts, and farmers’ markets
  • Community and faith-based organizations.
  • Places where youth congregate, like movie theaters and malls.

The CDC’s Best Practices Manual includes a number of tips on how to engage youth to mobilize anti-tobacco campaigns of their own, as well as in-depth case studies from around the country and an extensive bibliography.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Best Practices User Guide:  Youth Engagement–State and Community Interventions. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2010.