Teen activists a rising force against smoking

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.

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.

"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.

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."

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