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Tobacco 21 takes off in Kankakee County

April 25, 2018

Not everyone is doing it.

That the students of the Pledge for Life Partnership Youth Advisory Council want you to know. Not everyone is smoking, drinking or taking prescription drugs.

In fact, the 2016 Illinois Youth Survey showed only 23 percent of sophomores and 37 percent of seniors in Kankakee County said they had alcohol — the most abused substance — in the past 30 days. Despite that, 68 percent of students thought their peers were drinking at higher rates.

It’s that disconnect that the YAC wants to explore through peer and community education efforts, including the new #JoinTheCrowd campaign, which encourages students to listen to positive peer pressure and make healthy choices. Made up of two or three students from each county high school, the YAC meets monthly to tackle issues of substance abuse in the community with a focus on alcohol, marijuana, prescription drugs and tobacco.

Part of their healthy lifestyle campaign is Tobacco 21, a national effort to raise the tobacco purchasing age to 21. Students from the Council have been making the rounds at local municipal meetings and presenting information about the dangers of tobacco products in an effort to change ordinances.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarettes alone cause 480,000 deaths per year in the United States.

“We also use the point that if a plane crashes, it’ll be on the news for months. That’s not the reality of tobacco. It’s one and done,” said Trenton Wills, a sophomore at Momence High School. “A person dies from tobacco and that’s it. You won’t hear about it.”

Recently, Hopkins Park became the first municipality in the county to pass an ordinance banning the sale of tobacco products to people younger than 21. The students also have presented to the cities of Kankakee and Bourbonnais, and hope to tackle the Kankakee County Board next.

“It’s very impressive,” Hopkins Park Mayor Mark Hodge said. “It’s a humbling experience to see the youth get involved and to know they’re interested in their futures and the next generation’s future.”

The members of the YAC and their advisers hope changing the law will keep tobacco out of high schools, as many students report getting substances from older friends or family members.

The teen years are a critical time. Around 95 percent of smokers start before age 21. Students also are concerned about e-cigarettes or vaping, which 13 percent of Kankakee County seniors use compared to the 28 percent who use tobacco products of any kind.

“Mainly people’s response if you ask them about (vaping), is there’s nothing wrong with it. They say, ‘Mine doesn’t contain nicotine,’ or ‘My sister bought it for me, so I know it’s safe,’” said Lydia Sellers, a junior at Grant Park High School.

“They don’t actually know what’s in there, that they can develop popcorn lung or that there’s nicotine in the product. They’re guessing it’s safe because they bought it from a friend.”

The YAC is supervised by Lindsay Wilson, health promotion coordinator for the Kankakee County Health Department; Brenda Wetzel director of Life Education Programs for the Iroquois-Kankakee Regional Office of Education; and Kate Reed, drug-free communities grant project coordinator for the Pledge for Life Partnership through I-KAN.

“We focus on the ways we can make environmental changes,” said Reed, who called the students rock stars. “When people think of substance abuse prevention, they think of treatment or scare tactics, but our focus is what can we do that’s positive that will equip students to use their voices to make community-wide change?”

The peer-to-peer conversations are at the heart of that change. By focusing on their unique perspectives, the members of the YAC can reach teenagers in a way their adult advisers can’t.

While they continue to present on the dangers of tobacco, the students on the YAC already are looking ahead to National Prevention Week, which runs May 13-19 and shines a light on issues from mental health to marijuana abuse. They’ll also be volunteering at Prescription Drug Take-Back Day this Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Northfield Square mall.

“I’ve learned that change doesn’t start in some big place, it starts in small town communities, and you have to work your way up there,” Sellers said. “It starts with us as individuals bringing it before a city council and eventually to the county. Then hopefully the state of Illinois.”

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