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El Paso County teens fire back at tobacco industry's targeting of youth

July 4, 2015 Updated: July 4, 2015 at 4:05 am
photo - Photo from a Tobacco Targets Youth campaign. Photo courtesy of Tobacco Targets Youth
Photo from a Tobacco Targets Youth campaign. Photo courtesy of Tobacco Targets Youth 

In March, a pack of 11- to 17-year-olds from Hillside Community Center slipped into a gas station convenience store on something of a tobacco scavenger hunt.

The six kids - part of the El Paso County Public Health's campaign Tobacco Targets Youth - feigned interest in aisles of snacks as they snooped for evidence of the tobacco industry in southern Colorado Springs. What they identified was staggering: two for one deals on gum tobacco, cigarette posters promoting an "experience," black and white "This product may cause lung cancer" disclaimers.

Up by the front counter, next to candy and chips, there were multicolored e-cigarettes. One of the flavors was bubble gum.

"That's targeting young people - they put it right in front by the cash register," said Kambri Craft, the leader of teen programming at Hillside who accompanied the kids to the convenience store. "These kids have so much to combat with already; it's just one more thing on the pile of stuff they have to deal with. It's infuriating."

The other four chapters of the countywide organization had similar findings when its members set out to nearby convenience stores, reaffirming the group's initial belief that Big Tobacco companies target areas with more teens as well as low-to-no income areas such as those surrounding Hillside.

Most of the kids in Craft's chapter say they have a parent or parents who use tobacco products. Most got hooked early.

"If the tobacco industry gets a kid to start smoking before they turn 18," Craft said, "they've got a lifelong smoker."

Ninety percent of smokers start before the legal age, according to a Centers for Disease Control study referenced on the Tobacco Targets Youth website. Additionally, according to a 2011 Healthy Kids Colorado survey, nearly 70 percent of Colorado high school students think it would be easy or sort of easy to acquire cigarettes.

The campaign has cited the numbers in public service announcements on local TV and radio stations with a rotating cast of volunteers speaking out against the tobacco industry. It also took to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to share five completed PhotoVoice projects featuring members brandishing signs with more damning research.

"What we're working toward is awareness and education," said Danielle Oller, a public health information officer with El Paso County. "We know that people in our community - through our polling - don't believe tobacco to be a problem among youth. We're just trying to open people's minds to the issues."

The campaign grew out of El Paso County's Tobacco Education and Prevention Partnership, a three-year-old grant-funded faction aimed at educating the public about the dangers of tobacco through fact sheets, online quitting programs and an over-the-phone help line. Organizers say they target a handful of "priority populations" across the county, the most important of which is teens.

Tobacco Targets Youth was an opportunity to further involve teens in the process; Bacia Hudson, the partnership program director, had been sitting down with kids from area high schools and community centers at least once a week before the inception of the new program.

"Teens are a stakeholder in everything we do," she said. "We want to make sure we hear from them."

Angel Orozco, a 15-year-old sophomore at Sierra High School, is among those contributing to the campaign.

Along with his commitments to the Young Marines - another Colorado Springs program promoting a drug-free lifestyle - he has become somewhat of a leader for the chapter at Deerfield Hills Community Center. In the 30-second televised PSAs, he hoisted a sign and recited a statistic he prepared; at an event in April, he donned a suit and tie to introduce the famed tobacco industry insider, La Tanisha C. Wright.

Angel said he's seen the impact nicotine can have. One of his friends picked up smoking from a classmate and has tried quitting three or four times to no avail.

"His struggle to quit kind of inspired me just to do what I can to make sure that doesn't happen for the kids younger than us," Angel said. "It gave me a personal reason to fight."

Angel plans to continue working with the campaign when meetings resume in the fall. There's a lot of work to do.

"Tobacco industries are like hunters - they never go after the secure people, they go after people like teens who are going through harder times," he said. "This is going to be a long battle, but we have to fight it."

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