5/21/2012 - Local teens help smoking rates hit all-time low in NC
by Casey Blake - Asheville Citizen Times
ASHEVILLE -- A new study suggests a group of local teenagers are winning the fight against some very grown-up political obstacles: tobacco use and state budget cuts.
A recently released survey presented by the state Department of Health and Human Services says the percentage of North Carolina teens who smoke has hit an all-time low this year, down by close to 50 percent over the last decade.
A new North Carolina Youth Tobacco Survey presented this week showed 4.3 percent of middle school students and 15.5 percent of high school students smoked cigarettes. That rate has dropped steadily in North Carolina since 2003.
The agency correlated the lower rates with its "Tobacco. Reality. Unfiltered" nonsmoking campaign. Since the campaign was launched in 2003, middle school smoking has dropped by 55 percent from 9.3 percent to 4.2 percent and high school smoking decreased by 43 percent from 27.3 percent to 15.5 percent.
"I think we're all really ecstatic about these results and the fact that we're making a difference," said Tiffany Jones, a junior at North Buncombe High School who works with the local TRU program and Youth Empowered Solutions.
"But we're also really aware that the fight is definitely not over, and there is a lot of work to be done."
Good teen spirit
Jones joined a group of students from other city and county schools last week to disperse "quit kits" to veterans in recognition of National Armed Forces Day. The kits include rubber bands to "snap cravings away" as negative reinforcement for cravings; candy to fight oral fixation urges; and a list of reasons to quit.
"I just want to say that I'm really proud of you guys for coming out here and doing this," one of the kit recipients told the group last week. "It gives me a lot of hope."
The teens are quick to point out that each of them has a different reason for taking up the anti-tobacco cause, but they agree that peer education is the most effective way to keep teens from picking up the habit.
"It's a lot more effective to have someone your own age telling you about this kind of stuff," said Emma Harper, a sophomore at Asheville High School.
"No one quits or doesn't start smoking because an adult comes in and shakes their finger and says, 'Don't do this, it's bad.'"
Members of the group, which represents rural and urban areas across Buncombe County, said each of them knows someone their age who smokes cigarettes.
They said the most common incentive to smoke is based on a "perception that it relaxes you or is a stress reliever," and that it's a common habit among their peers.
They said some teens they know come from homes where parents buy cigarettes for them, but many smoke away from home and have parents who have no idea they've ever picked up a smoke.
Harper said many teens have the misconception that more people their age smoke than actually do, or an "everybody does it," mentality that just isn't so.
"We've talked to kids at other schools -- and especially at Asheville Middle -- who actually think that 80 percent of teenagers smoke," said Tyler Long, another Asheville High student.
"We know that that's obviously not the case, but it's amazing how many people think it."
Potential 'halt in progress'
Despite the TRU program's apparent success, teens and their adult advocates are concerned that funding cuts taking effect in July will halt the progress they've made.
The General Assembly eliminated funding as of July 1 for TRU and other tobacco prevention and cessation programs in North Carolina.
The TRU program was originally funded by the Health and Wellness Trust Fund with funds from the Master Settlement Agreement with major tobacco companies, but funding for the program was relocated to the department's budget last year and is not set to recur.
Governor Bev Perdue proposed $10 million in her budget released last week to begin restoring support for the initiatives.
"About 100,000 students enter middle school each year in North Carolina, and those kids can't be helped by programming they've never experienced," said Pam Seamans, executive director of the North Carolina Alliance for Health.
"We've seen in other states that eliminate funding for these types of programs that progress really stalls and the rates climb," Seamans said.
"We're so proud of the work these teens are doing, so we don't want to see these successes evaporate."