Between classes, extracurricular activities and peer pressure, high school can be hard enough without worrying about tobacco use and secondhand smoke, but Brainerd High School senior Dereke Townsend said it's "staggering" how often his peers use products containing nicotine.
"It's either you have a friend that you trust that's offering this to you, and if you're going to say no, you're going to look like the weak link of the group," he said. "Or there are people that say, 'To get over this issue that I have, I have to feel some type of freedom.' Whether it's this puff or this dip, it gets them through the day. That turns into six a day, to 12 a day, thousands a year."
Townsend was one of four local high school students who recently met with Hamilton County Commissioners Sabrena Smedley and Chester Bankston to show their support for a more comprehensive tobacco-free policy for all Hamilton County schools.
"I was very impressed with these fine young men and their presentation," Smedley said in a statement. "I applaud them for their passion in taking a stand for what they believe."
The current Hamilton County Schools policy hasn't been updated since 2006, and although it prohibits smoking inside buildings, it allows smoking on school grounds and doesn't address new nicotine products such as e-cigarettes. A broader policy, the students said, would protect them and their peers from the harmful effects of tobacco and e-cigs.
"We're in this population together, so when you do this it affects me, as well," said Townsend, adding that it would be easier to ask others not to smoke if there was policy to back him.
"I have asthma, and it's kind of hard to be in certain areas with smoke — I'm more precautious about going into certain situations or places, because I don't want to put myself in a situation where there will be smoking," he said. "You can say stuff, but legally they don't have to stop."
The students are part of a statewide youth tobacco prevention movement called "TNSTRONG," which stands for "Tennessee Stop Tobacco and Revolutionize Our New Generation" and whose mission is to make the next generation of Tennesseans tobacco-free.
The local teens have attended trainings on peer education and work closely with the Chattanooga- Hamilton County Health Department's Tobacco Prevention Program and the Hamilton County Coalition.
"We always like to stress that it's a youth movement led by the youth," said Paula Collier, tobacco prevention coordinator at the health department.
The next step for the TNSTRONG students is to request a meeting with the Hamilton County Board of Education members and to present at a school board meeting to advocate for a comprehensive tobacco-free policy for all Hamilton County school campuses.
Although Tennessee is a pre-emption state, meaning that local policies can't restrict tobacco beyond the state's laws, County Mayor Jim Coppinger said it's the community's responsibility to keep tobacco out of the hands of youth, and stricter policies can still help to change the culture.
"We just feel strongly that if we can help turn some of our young people away from smoking — to educate them — we can save lives," he said.
A big part of TNSTRONG's education efforts involves teaching kids that they're the targets of tobacco companies, Collier said, from the placement of products in convenience stores to products' roles in movies or video games — where the "cool" and "strong" characters are often portrayed as smokers.
"They've never thought of it before," she said. "So now when they see that in a video game, they think, 'I wonder if this is paid advertising?'"
She said products like e-cigarettes are also discussed at length, since teens and young adults are usually interested in what's new. These products are being marketing as less harmful, but the dangers are not well understood and nicotine is a powerfully addictive substance that can impact the brain as it keeps developing into the mid-20s.
"We really try to make sure that the youth are considering that there's a big difference between less harmful and healthy," Collier said. "While they don't contain carbon monoxide, they are not harmless."
Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6673.