A youth-led, anti-tobacco group mentored by local leaders inspired Hamilton County schools to scrap the system's outdated tobacco policy and go nicotine-free.
Although the old policy prohibited smoking inside or near buildings, it allowed smoking on school grounds and didn't address modern nicotine products such as electronic cigarettes.
The new policy bans combustible tobacco, smokeless tobacco, e-cigs, vaping and any associated paraphernalia from all school property, including vehicles, bleachers, athletic fields, gymnasiums, auditoriums and public restrooms.
The group of high-schoolers — Dereke Townsend, Desman Ware, Mike Green and De'Koryon Powell — are part of a statewide movement called TNSTRONG, which stands for "Tennessee Stop Tobacco and Revolutionize Our New Generation," a program of the state department of health.
They were honored by the Hamilton County Commission during its Wednesday morning meeting, where Townsend spoke on behalf of his fellow members.
"This is going to impact the children," Townsend said. "I know they won't see the things that I've seen going through high school — seeing teachers smoking around campus. They won't be attracted to these things. They won't be thinking these things are acceptable."
The group was working with the Avondale Youth and Family Development Center and Hamilton County Coalition to combat substance use in the schools when it joined forces with TNSTRONG about two years ago.
Since then, the students have ramped up advocacy for a stricter school tobacco policy, something they believe will create a safer and healthier environment, reduce the number of children who start smoking and prevent exposure to harmful second- and third-hand smoke.
Dr. Morgan McDonald, assistant commissioner for family health and wellness at the Tennessee Department of Health, traveled from Nashville to attend the meeting and expressed gratitude for the policy's wording.
"This is about youth, this is about them becoming educated about what is best for them, for being willing to speak out, and for the board of education being willing to listen," McDonald said, adding that she hopes the effort "galvanizes" other boards across the state.
"As we've seen a decrease in smoking, we've seen an increase in youth using electronic devices — as many as 40 percent of youth in the state of Tennessee have used electronic, nicotine-containing products — and that's a trend that we want to reverse," she said. "We certainly see this as a very strong step forward."
Kathy Lennon, a school board member who joined last year, said she was unaware of the old policy until the group presented to members this spring.
"It truly brought me to tears to hear them come and speak before the board on such an important issue," Lennon said. "If we have kids coming to us about something as important as tobacco usage, and they see it on campus and they see it at their schools, then it is our responsibility as school board members to make that change."
Lennon began researching and working with the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, Tobacco Free Chattanooga and the board to tweak the policy before its approval on April 19.
She said the next steps are to update signs and better educate school officials, staff and students on nicotine use.
"We have to start younger. We can't wait until high school," Lennon said. "This needs to start in the early grades so that by the time they get to high school it's already going to be ingrained."
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