Teen activists a rising force against smoking
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"The research is very strong that when American schools began adopting curriculum requirements that kids go into the world and learn by doing, that that has had a lasting effect on activism," says Stephen Medvic, assistant professor of government and Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.Skip to next paragraph
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Along with service learning that accompanied the national push for recycling in the 70s and 80s, Mr. Medvic and others say the fallout is reflected in the growth of several national organizations such as, Mobilize American Youth, Rock the Vote, and Youth Vote Coalition.
"More and more kids got involved in cleaning up neighborhoods, drugs, gangs, homelessness, which had an even bigger spillover among kids who weren't even taking the classes," says Medvic.
Because many states won millions of dollars in tobacco settlements in 1998, antitobacco activism has become one of the higher profile teen issues, observers say. The state of Ohio, for instance, has a four-year, $50 million campaign - called "stand" - which, since November, has burgeoned from nine to 55 chapters as youths mount their own antitobacco ad campaigns.
Last week, when state lawmakers introduced an amendment to cut their funding, students from across the state marched to the State House with placards and signs. They made speeches, held press conferences, and testified in legislative committee, helping to kill the amendment.
"It was awesome. I was so nervous," says Sarah Cooper, an 18-year-old from north of Dayton who testified. She joined the "stand" campaign because both her parents, who she feels are endangering their own health, are smokers."I think 'stand' can do a lot to help offset the millions that tobacco companies pour into the state every week to get others to smoke."
Observers say it is partly the power of the personal touch, unpolished and from the heart, that is persuasive.
"When teens stand in front of legislators as a group which traditionally doesn't have much voice in society, they often bring the element of shock that the issues they are addressing are affecting the most innocent among us," says David Smith, executive director of Mobilizing America's Youth. "That's something that professional lobbyists can't do as effectively."
But for the same reasons that teens may currently have more clout where some adults fail - innocence, personal stories, grass-roots organization - some observers see a danger of exploitation.
"It's hard to condemn kids doing this, but I feel that they are put up to this by the bigger movement," says Ray Domkus, the president of the California chapter of Forces International, a organization concerned about the rights of smokers.
At this point, however, teen activists show no sign of slowing down. Next up in several states: cigarettes on the silver screen. Teen groups in nine states will begin this month a united letter-writing campaign to stop cinematic portrayals of smoking as sexy, cool, and rebellious.
Like the stand campaign and other teen activist networks, various state chapters are technically savvy, using websites and e-mail to coordinate efforts.
"Teens today feel like they are dealing with a lot more of these issues in their face than their parents did," says Yvette Childs, spokeswoman for the California Youth Advocacy Network, which staged demonstrations at the California State Capitol two weeks ago and is holding training workshops for teens in several cities.
"But they also feel they have the advantage of new tools and ways to organize volunteers, harness their anger and passion and show decisionmakers that they care."