Dressed as zombies representing smokers risen from the dead, dozens of Rhode Island teenagers held a Kick Butts Day Zombie Walk at the Rhode Island State House today to warn the living about the dangers of tobacco and e-cigarette use.
The event culminated with a rally where the teens called on leaders to resist tobacco and vaping industry practices that target youth, to raise the minimum legal age for all tobacco product sales to 21, and to support communities working to prevent tobacco-related disease and deaths. The teens were joined by Nicole Alexander-Scott, MD, MPH, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) and Gustavo Torres from the national Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.
"We're standing up to the vaping and tobacco industry to say 'raise the age or we'll rage!' to stop selling and pushing your unsafe e-cigarettes and vaping devices to kids and teens," said Thyandra Martinez, a senior who attends West Warwick High School. "Big Tobacco is lining up teens as 'new customers' with candy-flavored e-cigarettes and vaping, even though nicotine can ruin our brains, our education, and our lives. Don't be fooled, underage teens! Vape is not the answer, smoking causes cancer!"
"E-cigarettes are highly addictive and they are very dangerous, especially for young people," said Dr. Alexander-Scott. "I commend every one of these teenagers for stepping up and fighting back. We need to follow their lead and do everything we can to prevent youth tobacco and e-cigarette use, with a focus on the vulnerable communities where companies continue to push their shameless marketing tactics most aggressively. Every person in every community in Rhode Island deserves an equal opportunity to be healthy, without marketing harmfully targeting their community."
In Rhode Island, 20% of high school teens reported current use of e-cigarettes in 2017 according to the State's Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) facilitated by the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH).
The human brain continues forming important connections until roughly 26 years of age. Nicotine exposure for kids, teens, and young adults can "prime" the brain for addictions to tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs, stunt brain growth, and cause problems with learning, memory, mood, impulse control, and decision-making, according to the U.S. Surgeon General. The FDA recently began to investigate links between e-cigarette use and seizures after receiving reports involving primarily teens and young adults.
Despite state and federal laws that prohibit sales to people younger than 18 years of age, tobacco addiction is primarily established during adolescence, followed by early adulthood. Ninety percent of adult smokers first light up as a kid or teen, and less than 1% begin smoking after age 26.
An estimated 16,000 more teenagers alive today in Rhode Island will one day die from smoking-related illnesses. Tobacco use remains the leading cause of premature death in the United States and Rhode Island. Over the last three years, 12 states have passed tobacco-to-21 laws to address this issue, including Massachusetts and Maine.
"For decades, Big Tobacco has skirted laws and carved out loopholes to market and sell to young people because they understand the science of how teen brains grow and how lifelong customers first get addicted to nicotine," said Gustavo Torrez of Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. "Not surprising, the cigarette and e-cigarette industries in recent years have joined forces, and we now see that teens who use e-cigarettes are more likely to smoke deadly lit cigarettes. More can be done to protect youth from the growing predatory tobacco industries, and that's why we're seeing many more states and cities raising the tobacco sale age to 21 and banning kid-friendly, candy-like flavored tobacco products."
Kick Butts Day activities are held nationally and are sponsored by the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids to showcase teen creativity that demonstrates how tobacco and nicotine use can quickly addict young people, harm brain development, cause chronic disease, disfigure, and kill.
Teens also took to social media to get their messages out more widely, using hashtags #iKickButts, #RIEndGame, and #BeTheFirst. Four teen groups also continued to share the home-grown videos they had produced for a Tobacco Free Teen Alliance PSA Challenge. The PSA challenge winners were: Best Overall Winner - West Warwick Public Schools STAAND Chapter; Fan Favorite Winner - East Bay Regional Coalition; and Runners Up - AS220-Providence and Blackstone Valley Region-Central Falls.
Free support is available to quit smoking. The Rhode Island Smoker's Helpline provides counseling by phone, nicotine replacement products, online and digital support tools, local referrals, and more. In addition to adult smokers, teens who use e-cigarettes or nicotine in any form may also call the Rhode Island Smoker's Helpline for free age-appropriate quit counseling and other support. All services are supported by RIDOH. Call 1-800-QUIT NOW (1-800-784-8669).
The Rhode Island "Kick Butts Day Zombie Walk" was sponsored by the RIDOH Tobacco Control Program, Office of Rural Health, and Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, in partnership with Tobacco Free Teen Alliance from the following communities: Barrington, Bristol, Burrillville, Central Falls, Cumberland, East Providence, Providence (AS220), West Warwick, Warren, Woonsocket, and more.