Teens stand up to big tobacco

Dolgeville Students Dakota Jeffers and Phoenix Longway pose for a photo during the rally in Richmond, Virginia where they joined nearly 100 other youth from New York and Nebraska to say to the shareholders of the Ttbacco giant Philip Morris USA/Altria that they will stand up and fight back against how tobacco marketing is aimed at their generation. (Photo submitted)

DOLGEVILLE — Nearly 100 teen leaders from New York state took on Altria Group executives and shareholders on Thursday for the fourth consecutive year, according to a news release.

Their actions, centered outside the Richmond Convention Center, Richmond, Va., and areas nearby, focused on why the tobacco giant baited consumers and public health officials with the promise of withdrawing pod-based nicotine products from the market in order to combat teen vaping use, and then switched their priorities by investing $12.8 billion in e-cigarette company Juul Labs.

The teens represent Reality Check of New York.

“Altria blamed nicotine pods and fruity flavors for fueling a surge in teen vaping,” said Dakota Jeffers, Reality Check leader and freshman from Dolgeville High School. “If that’s the case, then why did they invest in Juul, the company that made these types of e-cigarettes so popular?”

Classmate and fellow Reality Check leader Phoenix Longway agreed.

“Despite what they say, Altria spends billions marketing their deadly products right in front of us, first cigarettes and now Juul,” said Longway, also a freshman at Dolgeville. “Their goal is to create a new generation of customers — just in a different product. Enough is enough, already.”

According to the release, studies show that kids who shop in stores with tobacco marketing, such as gas stations and convenience stores, are 64 percent more likely to start smoking than their friends who don’t.

The teens dressed in waders and carried fishing poles with a fresh catch of Juul nicotine pods and Marlboro cigarettes hanging from them. They want Altria executives, as well as the entire tobacco industry, to know that they won’t be “Fuuled” by Big Tobacco investment in Juul and will continue to carry out the awareness-raising work they start in Richmond in their communities back home.

Some youth will take their stories right to the biggest fish — the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Altria Group, Howard Willard. Eight Reality Check teens and two youth leaders have been given shareholder proxy tickets and will go inside the meeting to address corporate tobacco executives and ask questions.

Altria’s investment will allow Juul products to be displayed alongside regular cigarettes in the nation’s retail outlets, a combination that undercuts earlier promises Altria made with former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb to clamp down on the youth vaping epidemic.

Public health officials and youth leaders for Reality Check, who have successfully fought to eliminate youth-attracting marketing tactics like colorful packaging and candy flavors in cigarettes through the years, see this as their next big battle to reduce teen tobacco use.

Reeling in more information:

Findings on youth tobacco use and tobacco industry marketing in places where children and young adolescents can see it indicate:

The average age of a new smoker in New York is 13 years old, and 90 percent of adult smokers say they first tried smoking by age 18.

The U.S. tobacco industry spent an estimated $9.5 billion on advertising and promotion of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco in 2013. This includes nearly $220 million annually in New York state, or nearly $602,000 a day.

Stores popular among adolescents contain almost three times more tobacco marketing materials compared to other stores in the same community.

The Altria shareholders demonstration is a joint effort between Reality Check NY, No Limits of Nebraska and Counter Tools of Chapel Hill, NC, a non-profit organization that provides training to public health workers who are working on point of sale tobacco control.

In preparation for demonstrating on Thursday, the Reality Check youth spent Wednesday learning about tobacco control policies, how the tobacco industry contracts with retailers and how they can stand up, speak out and make a difference in the fight against big tobacco.

Reality Check is a teen-led, adult-run program that seeks to prevent and decrease tobacco use among young people throughout New York state.

For more information about Reality Check, visit realitycheckofny.org.

By Patricia Older

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