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Teen activists a rising force against smoking

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 4, 2004


As fog and dusk descend on Pacific beaches nearby, 15 teenagers in clogs and T-shirts scurry into the warmly lit city council chambers next to the town green. Snagging the first three rows of plush seats, they hoist their message on placards: "Don't let smoking knock you out." Eight-foot-high Plexiglas tubes filled with 13,000 cigarette butts gathered from nearby beaches tower over their heads.

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One steps up to an open microphone: "We have come to explain how important a beach smoking ban would be to our community," says Ellie Erpenbeck, a 17-year-old senior at Newport Harbor High School. The teenagers cite statistics on health and environmental costs while handing a stack of signed petitions to the row of suit-and-tie councilmen ensconced behind an elevated oak rostrum.

Where sneaking a smoke in school restrooms or behind the family garage used to be a rite of rebellious adolescence, a growing number of teens are targeting smoking, along with other social issues, as a way to effect change for the better in their communities.

With 75 percent of young people disapproving of smoking one or more packs a day, the anti-tobacco issue heads a long list of issues that social researchers say is igniting activism among teens. Among them: air pollution, forest clear-cutting, pesticide use, drunk driving, teen pregnancy, and alcohol abuse.

Fed by their own moral outrage that grownups have dropped the ball, and that real-life policymaking is not only an opportunity but a duty, teenagers are making a difference.

"There has been a resurgence of high school activism and advocacy across a wide avenue of issues coast to coast," says Christine Kelley, a political scientist at William Paterson University in New Jersey and author of a book on social movements. "More and more teens are trying to end the image of youth as complacent and unengaged. They want the world to know they are a force to be reckoned with."

Most recently, that reckoning has come to California beach communities.

In March, 10 years after California set a national precedent by banning smoking in restaurants, the city of Solana Beach became the first California town to ban smoking at the beach - creating a wave of national and local interest that has led to similar laws in Santa Monica, San Clemente, and Los Angeles. Behind the charge: a group of teens - the Youth Tobacco Prevention Corps - who began lobbying three coastal cities more than two years ago.

"Teens have been taking the lead on this issue and been successful where adults have failed," says Jim Walker, director of Stop Tobacco Abuse of Minors Pronto (STAMP).

Ms. Erpenbeck, munching on pizza with friends outside city hall, says her backyard has become an ashtray, and she wants to do something about it.

For its part, Philip Morris USA does not think banning smoking on the beaches addresses the issue of littering. "We actually have an antilitter message on each cigarette package and encourage increasing the number of ashtrays on beaches and other outdoor locales," says Jennifer Golisch, spokeswoman for Philip Morris USA.

In the past, teens might have balked at challenging organizations like Philip Morris for fear of being labeled a goody-two-shoes.

"We don't get too many people frowning at what we do," says Ms. Erpenbeck, president of her high school chapter of Earth Resource Foundation. "I don't really know many peers who smoke, but in any case we don't care what these people think. We've grown beyond that in our club."

Some observers say this shrug against traditional peer pressure is largely the result of 15 years of "service learning" that became the rage of school curriculums beginning in the late 1980s.