Hundreds of Rhode Island teenagers held a Kick Butts Zombie Walk and mannequin challenge across Providence today to call on leaders to up the age to buy tobacco products in any form to 21, and to take additional steps to help prevent tobacco-related disease and deaths.
The event, which culminated with an awards ceremony at the Rhode Island State House to recognize groups whose education campaigns led to new tobacco use prevention measures in their communities, was held on World No Tobacco Day. The event is an opportunity for teenagers from communities throughout Rhode Island to use their creativity to show how tobacco use can disfigure and kill.
"I commend every one of these teenagers for stepping up and fighting back as big tobacco searches for its next generation of victims," said Nicole Alexander-Scott, MD, MPH, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH). "We need to follow their lead and do everything we can to prevent youth tobacco use, with a particular focus on the lower-income communities in Rhode Island where companies continue to push their shameless marketing tactics most aggressively."
"We're thankful to live in a community that stands up to the tobacco industry that preys on kids and teens and made 21 the legal purchase age to tackle the root causes of deadly tobacco and nicotine addiction head-on," said Ronny Jimenez-Severino, 19, of Central Falls, who attended today's event. "Putting a healthy distance between tobacco and teens is the best way to ultimately stop tobacco products from killing more people. Nine out of ten adult smokers first light up as a kid or teen. If the tobacco industry isn't stopped from targeting us, roughly 5.6 million more kids and teens alive today in the United States will one day die from smokingówith 16,000 from Rhode Island."
In addition to the need to raise the minimum legal tobacco purchase age to 21-years-old, teenagers at the event focused on the dangers of emerging tobacco products such as e-cigarettes and flavored tobacco products. Flavored tobacco products are often sold in kid-friendly candy flavors that can quickly hook developing adolescent brains on nicotine.
Youth were recognized at the ceremony for their work to pass tobacco policies within the last year in Central Falls, West Warwick, and Bristol.
Central Falls and West Warwick passed local ordinances requiring retailers to be licensed to sell tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. Central Falls has banned all flavored tobacco product sales, restricted the number of tobacco retailers (based on population density), restricted tobacco retailers' proximity to schools, and made 21 the legal age to buy tobacco products. Across the United States, more than 140 communities require tobacco customers to be at least 21-years-old. Since 2015, Hawaii and California have made 21 the legal tobacco purchase age. Legislators in other states, including Rhode Island, are considering similar measures.
In April, the Bristol Town Council banned all tobacco use (including e-cigarettes) in all municipal parks and beaches with support from its Parks & Recreation Department, which oversees summer camps for Bristol and Warren and other youth activities. The East Bay Tobacco Youth Council, which includes teens from Bristol, Warren, East Providence, and Barrington, has campaigned in recent years to raise public awareness about the harms of all tobacco products.
Since 2013, Providence has required tobacco retail licenses for all tobacco sales and restricted emerging tobacco products that have been strongly linked to youth tobacco use. Recent RIDOH data have shown reduced rates of flavored tobacco product use and e-cigarette use in Providence among youth. (Providence's rates were two and three times lower than those in Woonsocket and Cranston, which did not have similar restrictions in place when data were collected.)
Central Falls, West Warwick, Bristol, and Providence are all Health Equity Zone (HEZ) communities. In each HEZ a wide range of organizations and individuals are working together on various projects that are narrowing health disparities by supporting healthy choices and safe living. In addition to tobacco cessation, other HEZs are focusing on preventing chronic diseases, improving birth outcomes, and improving the social and environmental conditions of neighborhoods.
Rhode Island's youth cigarette smoking rate dropped from 8% in 2013 to 4.8% in 2015, the lowest in the nation. 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. Twenty seven percent of high school students in Rhode Island reported using a tobacco product in 2015.
Wednesday's events were sponsored by the national Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, the American Heart Association, Tobacco Free Rhode Island, and RIDOH, with additional support provided by the Truth Initiative and From the R.I.P Productions. In addition to the walk, mannequin challenge, and awards ceremony, the day featured a health education program at the Providence Career & Technical Academy.
World No Tobacco Day is sponsored by the World Health Organization each year on May 31 to increase awareness about tobacco dangers and negative health impacts worldwide. The Rhode Island Teen Zombie Walk is a registered activity with the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. More information about teen tobacco use in Rhode Island, the campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, and World No Tobacco Day is available online.