Coalitions in Action: Missouri Coalition Cleans the Air with Tobacco Ordinances

With a little perseverance and assistance from all community sectors, a Missouri coalition was instrumental in passing a local youth tobacco ordinance, as well as smoke-free laws.

Back in 2005, Lee’s Summit, Mo. did not have any smoke-free laws on the books and tobacco use was high. When a neighboring town passed a clean air ordinance, the folks at Lee’s Summit CARES decided to follow suit because protecting youth is always in their best interest.

A group of youth presented a clean air ordinance to the city council, which included the prohibition of tobacco in establishments such as bowling alleys, restaurants and bars. But according to the coalition’s director Roby Little, the city council “wasn’t having it.”

Determined, coalition members took a different route and got 5,000 signatures for a petition to get the ordinance on a 2007 ballot. The ordinance passed with 73 percent voter approval.

“This said, ‘Look, this community doesn’t want smoking,’” Little recalled. “The next step was to get an environmental prevention piece in place. We decided we needed to do education and awareness with students so they understand the dangers of tobacco use.”

Collaborating with the Kansas City Healthcare Foundation, Rediscover Mental Health and the Baptist Trinity Legacy Foundation, the coalition put together some courses about tobacco prevention that were used in local schools. Taking it a step further, an expert came in and trained coalition members on how to teach the classes. In addition, there was also a support group formed for kids who had a smoking issue.

But teens could still get their hands on tobacco — legally.

Little said that as she drove by the local high school, she continued to see kids smoking across the street from the school building.

“They were just stepping a foot off-campus. But why are we still smoking after school?” Little said.

After reviewing ordinances with school resource officers and local police, she found once a student stepped off school property, there was no law stating that they couldn’t smoke. In addition, a former police chief said he didn’t want kids to be punished for possessing tobacco — or intimidated or bothered by an officer.

In December 2009, working with the current police chief, the coalition brought in the city attorney who drew up a youth tobacco ordinance, mirrored on a state statute, prohibiting minors from possessing tobacco. After it being rejected by the city council twice, the law was restructured and eventually passed by the city council in January 2011.

During the long process, the Health Education Advisory Board advocated on behalf of the coalition, which gained a lot of media coverage.

Little said that while the process was arduous, it was also rewarding. It took “a lot of communication and support from community sectors. Working with those other teams like mental health, public safety, health education, news media and marketing you just keep persevering. It’s all about perseverance.”

She added that she learned about the importance of environmental prevention at a CADCA training conference.

“That’s what made the difference. A trifecta — clean air, the education piece, then coming back and creating an ordinance that stopped youth from underage smoking,” Little said. “We have seen a continual rise in teens’ perception that tobacco is harmful. Parents think its strong use has dropped.

“We are in a good place with tobacco,” she said. “It’s not anywhere near a problem that alcohol and marijuana are. That’s a whole different ball game.”