Hundreds of Rhode Island teenagers held a Kick Butts Zombie Walk across downtown Providence today to call on leaders to raise the minimum legal age for all tobacco product sales to 21 and to take additional steps to help prevent tobacco-related disease and deaths.
The event culminated with a rally led by the group Tobacco Free Teens inside the Rhode Island State House. Teenagers from communities throughout Rhode Island used their creativity to show how tobacco and nicotine use can quickly addict young people, harm adolescent brain development, cause chronic diseases, disfigure people, and kill people.
"We're thankful to live in a community that stands up to the tobacco industry to tackle the root causes of deadly tobacco and nicotine addiction head-on," said Kennedy Chartier, of North Smithfield, who attends Beacon Charter High school in Woonsocket. "Leveling the playing field is the best way to stop tobacco addiction from killing more people. Nine out of ten adult smokers first light up as a kid or teen—when the human brain can get hooked on nicotine so quickly. That makes us easy prey for tobacco products in any and all forms. An estimated 16,000 more teens alive today in Rhode Island will one day die from smoking, and we do not accept that. Our end game is to be the first tobacco-free generation."
"Every single young person in Rhode Island, no matter their ZIP code, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity, deserves the opportunity to live long, reach high, and breathe free," said Nicole Alexander-Scott, MD, MPH, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH). "I commend every one of these teenagers for stepping up and fighting back as big tobacco looks for its next generation of victims. Their energy and enthusiasm are inspirations to us all to do everything we can to prevent youth tobacco use, with a particular focus on the communities that tobacco companies have targeted for their shameless marketing tactics most aggressively."
Higher rates of tobacco use exist among low-income earners, people who identify as LGBTTQQ, Native Americans, people with military experience, and people with behavioral health issues.
Tobacco use remains the leading cause of premature death in the United States and Rhode Island. While 18 is the minimum legal tobacco purchase age in most states, more than 90% of adult smokers started before age 18. Over the last two years, five states have passed tobacco-to-21 laws to address this issue head on: California, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, and Oregon. Other states are considering similar measures.
Teens also took to social media to get their messages out more widely today, using the hashtags #RIEndGame and #BeTheFirst to emphasize their overarching goal to become the first tobacco-free generation.
Many sounded their alarm over candy-flavored tobacco products and e-cig juices that can lure kids and quickly hook developing adolescent brains on nicotine. Teens also emphasized that e-cigarettes and vaping device aerosols have been found to contain cancer-causing agents and other harmful chemicals. For this reason, and because they can lead to lit cigarette use, the U.S. Surgeon General has stated that young people should not use e-cigarettes or nicotine in any form.
All of this advocacy work comes after some of the nation's largest tobacco companies were found guilty in federal court in 2017 of racketeering and other charges that revealed a long history of reportedly lying to lawmakers and the public about tobacco products' health risks. It was also determined that they used marketing practices that targeted communities' vulnerable populations, including youth. Court-ordered Corrective Statement ads are scheduled to run throughout 2018 as primetime national television spots and through other media.
On Kick Butts Day, Rhode Island teens also celebrated successes in their own communities. Central Falls and Barrington have passed tobacco-to-21 laws, while Central Falls, Johnston, Middletown, Providence, West Warwick, and Woonsocket, have passed local ordinances requiring retailers to be licensed to sell tobacco products. Central Falls has also banned e-cigarettes and flavored tobacco product sales, restricted the number of tobacco retail licenses (based on population density), and restricted tobacco retailers' proximity to schools. Additionally, a growing number of Rhode Island and cities and towns have established 100% tobacco free zones in municipal parks, beaches, playgrounds, recreation fields, and other public spaces.
A complete list of communities with tobacco control policies is online.
The Rhode Island Kick Butts Day Zombie Walk was postponed from March 21st because of inclement weather. Kick Butts Day is a national awareness day sponsored by the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. The walk in Rhode Island was sponsored by RIDOH, Tobacco Free Rhode Island, CVS Health Foundation, and Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, in partnership with Tobacco Free Youth from the following communities: Barrington, Bristol, Central Falls, Charlestown, Cranston, East Providence, Hopkinton, Johnston, Middletown, Pawtucket, Providence, Richmond, Tiverton, West Warwick, Warren, Woonsocket, and more.