Student activists played critical role in banner year for prevention legislation
Vermont Business Magazine State health and education officials honored student members, their advisors and community partners of the youth-led organizations Our Voices Exposed (OVX) and Vermont Kids Against Tobacco (VKAT) last Friday for their leadership in raising awareness about the impact of tobacco and vaping products on young Vermonters.
The Department of Health and Agency of Education presented awards for Youth Advocates of the Year, Advisors of the Year, and the OVX groups with Most Impactful Community Collaboration. In addition, winners of the VKAT Photovoice project were recognized for their outstanding work. The awardees, who come from around the state, were selected by an advisory committee from a pool of nominations.
Emily Dugan of Fair Haven Union High School was recognized for being accepted into the 2019 National Youth Ambassador Program, hosted by Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, representing youth leadership on the national level.
Health Commissioner Mark Levine, MD opened the celebration by acknowledging the long history of OVX and VKAT in speaking out against the tobacco industry’s influence – especially in its efforts to appeal to youth.
“As you well know, tobacco remains an important issue,” said Dr. Levine. “We see this in the epidemic of e-cigarette use among youth. More than ever, we must remain proactive and strategic in our efforts to counteract tobacco use and exposure among young Vermonters. Thanks to all of you, we are doing that.”
Dr. Levine highlighted the groups’ work in influencing public perception. “You and your fellow activists work tirelessly, educating your peers and local decision makers, and setting the standard for community impact.” Other speakers agreed and acknowledged how the students’ influence through presentations and conversations. “Peer-to-peer sharing is very impactful, not just about tobacco, but about the many related pressures young people face,” said Chronic Disease Prevention Chief Rhonda Williams. “Thank you for speaking your truth.”
Beth Keister, tobacco and substance use prevention coordinator with the Agency of Education, is herself a former member of OVX. Keister applauded the groups’ work to take a stand for health and told the students they are “developing skills that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.”
OVX and VKAT have focused on educating students, parents and policy makers about the efforts made by e-cigarette and tobacco manufacturers to attract young people, primarily through marketing of flavors designed to appeal to potential new users. There are more than 15,000 e-cigarette flavors currently available, and the industry strategy has been effective.
According to Health Department data, 34% of high school students reported ever trying an electronic vapor product. Nationally, there has been a 78% increase in vaping among high school students from 2017 to 2018.
This past legislative session saw the passage of three pieces of tobacco and e-cigarette prevention laws that Dr. Levine said will “mark a major public health impact for generations to come.” Tobacco 21, which raises the minimum age to purchase the products from 18 to 21; prohibition against anyone from selling e-cigarettes, liquid containing nicotine, or other tobacco substitutes without a Vermont seller license − effectively prohibiting the online sales of such products; and legislation that subjects e-cigarettes and liquid nicotine to the same 92% tax already assessed on tobacco-related products.
Dr. Levine credited the youth-led groups for making a difference during consideration of the bills. “In the heart of winter, these students organized and literally marched to the Statehouse to educate legislators about flavored tobacco products, e-cigarettes and the rise of new and emerging products.”
“Watching these students and their advisors in action inspires great hope in me for the future of our kids and Vermont,” said Levine.
List of 2019 Awardees
Youth Advocates of the Year
- Joseph Vineyard, St. Johnsbury Academy High School OVX
- Safiya Ibrahim, Burlington High School OVX
Advisors of the Year
- Guy Pierce and Spencer Morse, Danville High School OVX
- Dawn Poitras, Spaulding High School OVX
OVX with the Most Impactful Community Collaboration
- Danville High School OVX and Northeast Vermont Regional Hospital Prevention Services
- Burlington High School OVX and Burlington Partnership for a Healthy Community
VKAT Photovoice Project
1st place − Twin Valley Middle School VKAT
2nd place − Sheldon Middle School VKAT
3rd place − Canaan School VKAT
Source: BURLINGTON – 6.4.2019 healthvermont.gov