Hundreds of Rhode Island teens participated in a zombie walk to the State House on Wednesday to call on policy makers and lawmakers to prevent tobacco companies from taking people's last dying breaths.
The teens were joined at a press event at the statehouse by Nicole Alexander-Scott, MD, MPH, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH).
"These brave, inspired students demonstrated today that they refuse to sit back quietly while big tobacco companies shamelessly target teens and people in low-income communities with their dangerous new products," Dr. Alexander-Scott said. "By coming together and taking issues like tobacco use head-on, we are working to build healthy communities and give everyone a chance to make it in Rhode Island."
Dressed as zombies on a walk that started at the University of Rhode Island's Paff Auditorium, and that included a stop at Biltmore Park for a zombie flash mob dance, the students focused on three issues:
• Raising the buying age from 18 to 21 years old • Restricting the sale of flavored tobacco products • Tougher laws regarding e-cigarettes
In addition to the walk, the teens participated in a half-day program that included health presentations by youth advocates and students.
Rhode Island's youth smoking rate for lit cigarettes dropped from 8% in 2014 to 4.8% in 2015. However, emerging tobacco products, such as e-cigarettes and flavored cigarettes, threaten to reverse these gains and increase rates of tobacco use for the next generation. For example, e-cigarette use among Rhode Island high school teens reached nearly 20% last year, while nationwide data showed flavored products are used by more than 70% of high school tobacco users.
"Teens came together today because we want adults to know what we're up against. Many flavored tobacco products now taste like candy to mask the harsh taste of tobacco, look like candy wrappers that attract youth, are just as addictive as cigarettes, and are especially harmful to youth," said Jamey Rondeau, 17, of the Woonsocket Prevention Coalition, one of the groups that participated in the zombie walk. "We want to be the first tobacco-free generation for Rhode Island, but we need adults to do everything they can to keep us from getting hooked on harmful tobacco products."
"Two out of every three smokers die from their smoking. Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death and disease in Rhode Island and the nation, killing more than 1,800 Rhode Islanders every year," said Jennifer Wall, Tobacco Free Rhode Island Network Coordinator. "Tobacco addiction takes hold in the teenage years. Nearly 90% of all adult smokers started smoking before age 19. Helping teens stay away from tobacco is the best way to prevent a lifetime of tobacco addiction, disease and death."
In Rhode Island, communities such as Providence and Central Falls have already adopted smoke-free and tobacco-free policies in indoor and outdoor public spaces where youth gather, required tobacco retailers to have local licenses and be subject to enforceable fines, included e-cigarettes in municipal smoke-free policies, and restricted the sales of flavored tobacco products that appeal mainly to youth.
Across the United States, more than 120 communities require tobacco customers to be at least 21 years old. In 2015, Hawaii became the first state to make 21 the legal tobacco purchase age. Legislators in other states, including Rhode Island, are considering similar measures.
The event was sponsored by the national Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, Tobacco Free Rhode Island, and the Rhode Island Department of Health. Other school- and community-based youth organizations from cities and towns throughout Rhode Island participated.
The Rhode Island Zombie Walk is a registered activity for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids' Kick Butts Day, an annual observance that gives youth the opportunity to take a stand against tobacco in creative ways.
More information about tobacco use and teens in Rhode Island and Kick Butts Day is available online.