Cutting through Big Tobaccoâ€™s ad tactics
These young people make no secret of their desire to kick butts. In fact, they want the world to know they are rebelling. What makes them different, though, is they are REBELs with a cause.
The Atlantic County branch of Reaching Everyone By Exposing Lies (REBEL) is dedicated to organizing teens to say â€œnoâ€ to Big Tobacco.
Theresa Pearson, chairperson of REBEL for Atlantic County, said the reason she joined the group is simple.
â€œI donâ€™t believe that Big Tobacco should be manipulating or lying to (teens). Itâ€™s not right for them to target us. What we try to do is spread the word and help people understand what the big companies are doing to get them hooked,â€ Pearson, 15, said.
Pearson and other members of REBEL are campaigning against cigarette advertising aimed specifically toward their age group.
Rhonda Fitzgerald, 16, said she joined because she feels tobacco companies target younger smokers.
â€œI started as a smoker myself,â€ said Fitzgerald, who attends Mainland Regional High School. â€œI thought it was a rite of passage, but that was when I was younger. Then I wised up and quit.
â€œWeâ€™re trying to let kids know theyâ€™ve been targeted. We want to do something for them.â€
REBEL is a statewide network of county-by-county groups that began in November with a Kick Ash weekend â€” a statewide meeting that got the REBEL ball rolling. Since the groupâ€™s creation more than 1,200 teens from around the state have joined.
â€œThe feedback weâ€™ve gotten so far has been immense. Our goal is to get 5,000 members, and I donâ€™t think weâ€™ll have any problem getting that,â€ Pearson said.
Presently, seven schools are part of the REBEL program: Egg Harbor Township High and Middle schools, Pleasantville High and Middle School, Mainland Regional High School, Oakcrest High School and Absegami High School.
The attraction to belonging to the group is the opportunity to educate peers, both girls say.
â€œI see a lot of my friends smoke,â€ Fitzgerald said. â€œAnd I know a lot of them canâ€™t stop.â€
REBEL members attend health fairs to educate people on both the dangers of smoking and tobacco companiesâ€™ manipulations. They also provide information on how to quit smoking. In addition, they hold monthly meetings at local hangouts â€” most recently at a Pizza Hut â€” to talk strategy and organize their movement.
An upcoming rally at Youngâ€™s Skating Center in Mays Landing from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday is aimed at recruiting new members and to have a good time.
â€œItâ€™s open to everyone,â€ Pearson said.
Kim Burns, the youth coordinator at Atlantic Prevention Resources, said members do a lot to advocate their beliefs.
â€œMost recently, they wrote a letter to Mrs. Bush to urge her to maintain federal buildingsâ€™ smoke-free policies,â€ Burns said.
Locally, REBEL members have been devising strategies at meetings to get the Friendly Family Restaurant at the Hamilton Mall to go smoke-free.
â€œThey did surveys and wrote letters to get the restaurant to join the rest of the mall and be smoke-free,â€ Burns said. â€œThe whole idea of REBEL is that itâ€™s a youth-run movement.â€
In April, the group sponsored Kick Butts Day in schools across the county. Members asked their fellow students to sign pledge cards to stay smoke-free for the day, and set up tables in school cafeterias to display the dangers of smoking and distribute REBEL gear.
â€œDuring lunch period we gave out information and promo material. We had the tar jar there, and pictures of what smoking does to your lungs,â€ Person said. â€œI canâ€™t tell you how may people saw that stuff and said â€˜Iâ€™m never smoking again.â€™â€
Burns said more than 1,000 students in Atlantic County schools participated in the day.
Spreading the word
Upcoming projects include a puppet show. In July the group plans to paint a mural on the side of the Atlantic Prevention Resources Building.
â€œWe want to go other places and paint these, we just need to find places that will let us do it,â€ Burns said.
Another attractive aspect of REBEL is it is not an anti-smoker group, Fitzgerald said.
â€œWeâ€™re not against smokers. We donâ€™t target people, big tobacco targets us,â€ she said. â€œIn fact, we have smokers that are members of REBEL.â€
â€œWeâ€™re not out there to say people who smoke are bad â€” we donâ€™t degrade anyone or put them down. We just want to educate,â€ Pearson said.
One of the groupâ€™s activities was to visit stores to see how many cigarette ads they featured versus how many anti-tobacco posters were on display.
â€œThere were way more tobacco ads,â€ she said.
Many members see REBEL as a way to serve as a role model to parents, peers and siblings.
â€œIâ€™m an educator and a teacher,â€ Pearson said. â€œWhen a teen teaches a teen something, itâ€™s a more effective message than when an adult lectures them.â€
Belonging to REBEL is also rewarding because itâ€™s a learning process, Pearson said.
â€œWhen weâ€™re teaching people what we know, it reinforces what we already learned,â€ she added.
REBEL is funded through the Master Settlement Agreement, which forced the major tobacco companies to give money to fund anti-smoking programs.
â€œWe donâ€™t have to fund-raise, and itâ€™s nice. Phillip Morris paid for it twice â€” once to target teens and now to fund our group,â€ Fitzgerald said.
New Jersey received $30 million in the agreement, according to Burns. REBEL gets the money from the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services.
While Pearson said she understands some people her age start smoking (the average age kids begin the habit is 11) because it gives them a rush, sheâ€™s found her own way to seek exhilaration.
â€œI get a natural high from being a part of this. Itâ€™s so rewarding to find people who feel the same way you do about something,â€ Pearson said. â€œItâ€™s a great cause, and why not?â€
For more information on REBEL or to find a listing of county contact information, visit