“Around 2018, the youth were extremely active in substance use prevention and identified vaping as a problem before anyone else in our community. Before we even knew what a Juul was, the youth were realizing it was affecting their peers,” says Benjamin Meier, Youth Leadership Program Manager at STAND coalition in Newton, Kansas.
“In the late summer of 2019, the Newton team was passionate about curbing vaping trends, because they were seeing things that they didn’t like in their schools. They put a presentation together, and four students spoke to the City Commission in Newton about what they were observing among their peers.” In addition to these students, there were representatives from the American Heart Association and the Tobacco 21 initiative attending the presentation, and the students were able to work alongside the city manager and the tobacco leadership team, Harvey County Drug Free youth coalition.
“Overall, the City Commission was really impacted by the presentation and immediately wanted to take action. Tobacco 21 was approved in Newton in September of 2019, and then, of course, the federal government passed it for the next January.”
Despite this win, there were unexpected outcomes as well. “When our kids in Newton presented for Tobacco 21, we didn’t expect it to be widely known. Somehow three different news stations found out about it, so there were news cameras in the room while they presented. Their first and last names were released, and the next day, Mirror Inc., our organization, got constant calls asking about the students’ personal information.” Ultimately, the students and coalition received negative backlash and comments for their meeting with the City Commission.
“We had to damage control for the youth because it really affected them. It was definitely a learning lesson that when youth are willing to stand up for something positive, there will be other kids and even adults from both in and out of state who will react with negative comments.”
“The good part is those kids have major resilience, and they know that, despite the feedback, they did something positive. The lesson for them was that when you stand up for something, not everybody is going to like it and you won’t always have 100% support from the community either. Those youth made real change in their community, something permanent, something that they can point to and see.”
Following the presentation, STAND was presented an additional opportunity to educate their community on the dangers of vaping. “The CEO of the local hospital has been one of the biggest champions of our youth. Anytime we do anything, she writes a thank you letter to them. After their presentation, she connected us with a local museum in the county to create an educational vaping exhibit.”
“Unfortunately, COVID really slowed the process down, but over the next year and a half, the vaping exhibit was developed. It had three sections. The first section showed what vaping was, what vaping devices look like and general information. The second section was focused on marketing. There were tobacco ads and an iPhone that would scroll through the original Juul ads on social media, and then there were interactive switches that you could flip that showed how tobacco data had gone up or down throughout the years targeting different demographics. The third section was focused on what STAND had done in Newton and included interviews of youth.”
The vaping exhibit was first hosted at the local hospital, and then after a few months, it was moved to the local museum. “Last October, the museum reached out to us wanting to have a panel with our youth on the last day that the vaping exhibit was going to be displayed. We had four youth representing different towns in our county who spoke, and one of the students had actually been a part of the original Tobacco 21 effort.”
The vaping exhibit is now traveling around the state of Kansas to health museums and various high schools. Ultimately, it will be shown in the Capitol building for Take Down Tobacco Day in March.
“Overall, I’m so proud of the kids in our community and in STAND. I think the important thing that I want to get across is that there’s resilience and there’s strength within our youth, no matter what the circumstances are, and they can do some incredible things. I think that’s the best part of my job – being the shoulders that they can stand on and helping them to make a real and lasting impact in their community.”