Students of all ages gather to protest habit, encourage legislators
Death stood quietly at her side.
Manhattan High School East Campus ninth-graders rally with 650 other high school students on the steps of the Statehouse in Topeka. The rally was organized by Teens Against Smoking in Kansas.She had an oxygen mask and was making her way through the crowd. People swarmed around her, chanting, their emotions increased by the constant pounding of drums and trumpets.
She represented a dying smoker, and her friend was the Grim Reaper. They were part of the 650 Kansas students rallying Thursday for legislators to form anti-tobacco laws.
The high school and middle school students, who came from every corner in Kansas, participated in the fifth annual rally of Smoke-free Teens Arising. They marched from the Topeka Performing Arts Center to the Statehouse and later met with legislators to voice their concerns.
"I think smoking is really a community norm in Kansas," said Jackie Feeney, senior at Manhattan High School. "We haven't really been taught that it's wrong, especially in a college town. Over 50 percent of my high school smokes, and it's a teen problem we need to take care of."
A youth advisory board, Teens Against Smoking in Kansas, organized this event. They invited students from Florida and Mississippi who are involved in anti-smoking campaigns in their states.
It hasn't been easy, said Mary Clift Hitt, a senior from Mississippi.
"Teen-agers are our biggest challenge. You know how they don't want to listen to anyone," Clift Hitt said. "We can't really say 'don't smoke' a second time. You just have to say, 'Here are the facts, and you just help yourself. Make your own choice. If you want to live a healthy lifestyle, you don't smoke. If not, well, that's your choice, but we're not going to tell you not to.'"
Adolescents, however, are just part of the reason why students came to the rally.
Hilary Clark, an eighth-grader at Manhattan Middle School, said she's upset some of her family members smoke.
"I'm totally against it," Clark said. "Smoking isn't cool. Most people think it's a loser tactic."
These opinions are supported by Rep. Henry Helgerson, D-Wichita, whose bill banned smoking at the Capitol and at hospitals. He also put in legislation that originally called for states to sue the tobacco companies and dedicate settlement money to children's programs.
Another issue, Helgerson said, is the amount of money spent on smokers and their ailments. According to a report by the Tobacco Free Kansas Coalition, tobacco-caused health costs in Kansas are estimated at $630 million per year.
The smoking trend, however, has diminished, Helgerson said.
"There's still a lot of people that smoke, but there's a public awareness that says, 'It ain't cool anymore,'" he said. "It's amazing the change in the public attitude. Nobody would have predicted this kind of turnaround 18 years ago. But it proves that if you have facts on your side, you have a group of people that work together and you have the funding and the resources to do that, you will eventually win."
This increase in public anti-tobacco groups has a big effect on tobacco companies, a lobbyist for a tobacco company said. Stock prices have gone down and some companies have or will diversify into other areas for profit, he said.
"The biggest challenge is that legislation isn't written with the herd mentality or without all the facts," he said. "Our challenge is having a forum to present the different views on the issue and get a fair hearing."
But the tobacco companies have been listening to the public, he said.
"My company over the years has changed its attitude about these types of activities. We're supportive of age restriction, school restriction, those kind of activities," he said.
Although the lobbyist said he doesn't agree with government mandates or legislations, he said he supports individual owners and businesses who decide whether or not their place will be smoke-free. In addition, he said the company encourages education for the youth and that a large part of master settlement agreement fees should be used for that end.
"It's tough for kids," he said. "It's part of growing up in a home where parents care about their kids and see that they have the facts and can encourage them to show restraint on all sorts of issues, not just tobacco, but drugs, alcohol, things in everyday life. That's where it really starts."
This might be a challenge for the parents, but children have their own to deal with, Feeney said.
"Probably the biggest challenge is letting the youth voice be heard and trying to get the youth's opinion through, as opposed to adults making our own choices," she said.
TASK will continue to voice kids' opinions as they prepare for the rally next year. Meanwhile, people need to still listen, said Jarrod Worthington, senior at Louisburg High School.
"I'd say at school, people laugh at us because they really don't know what we're about. I mean, really, we're not quite a majority, and it's kind of tough to get people to realize that we're in this because we think it's right and not for anything else," he said. "We need to take it back to our communities. That's where it really starts."