Union County, located in eastern Oregon, “has the heart of the Wild West,” says Robin Wortman, Coalition Coordinator at the Union County Safe Communities Coalition (UCSCC). The Grande Ronde Valley has a rich heritage of farming, ranching, logging and lumber companies. The ranching culture results in the mindset of “having a cold one” after a long, hard day of work and an above average rate of smokeless tobacco use. To make a positive change in the community, UCSCC implemented a tobacco-free policy in all City of La Grande parks.
“A strength of the UCSCC is that we work hard to keep conversations open and involve the full coalition in activities and decisions which keeps people interested, keeps them coming to meetings and helps us make a bigger collective impact in the county,” says Wortman.
The process of implementing a tobacco-free policy — including smokeless tobacco products, e-cigarettes, vaping and hookahs — was not an easy one. The policy was also drafted to cover marijuana in the event it does become legal in the future. The coalition set the goal in the summer of 2013, and in 2014 the coalition provided information and education about tobacco use and policy solutions in parks. The same year, the coalition gathered cigarette butts from Riverside Park to help present the impactful information during a scheduled ordinance review.
The youth played a key role in the project, speaking at councils and board meetings to community leaders. The youth voice is valued as a fresh perspective and a reminder of whose future is at stake.
The project moved at a slow pace, subject to the government schedule and the shifting of key staff in the department. The project was also purposefully designed to move slowly, giving the public the opportunity to be informed of changes and to have input as the policy moved forward. The community that UCSCC serves covers over 2,000 square miles and 25,790 residents. There are twelve unincorporated communities and eight incorporated towns in Union County: Cove, Elgin, Island City, La Grande, North Powder, Union and Summerville. La Grande is the largest city in the county with 13,085 residents.
As a result, positive change was made in the community. The combined work effort of a strong coalition that was utilized in many different capacities, an active and passionate youth council, and a guiding executive committee created consistency and a movement on the policy front. In 2010, the cigarette use rate by 11th graders was 15.9 percent and other tobacco products was 19.8 percent. After the implementation of the tobacco free policy in the parks in 2016, the rate decreased among 11th graders’ cigarette use to 10.6 percent and the smokeless tobacco use rate went down to 8.1 percent.
“Find your champions,” Wortman advises. “Understand the difference between providing information to policy and decision makers and lobbying. Educate your coalition about the process involved, prepare information to share and think about why this would benefit your community.”