“We cannot be bought.” This short, but powerful message uttered by Ithaca High School students was echoed throughout Cornell Co-op Extension at a press conference held by Reality Check, an anti-tobacco industry organization, on Feb. 1. In the first of many planned listening sessions over 2007, Reality Check sought to highlight the growing issue of tobacco abuse in Tompkins County high schools and middle schools. Together with a group middle school and high school students, Common Council member Gayraud Townsend ’05 (D-4th Ward) emphasized the need for tobacco education in the school system.
Founded in 1998 from the money obtained from tobacco lawsuits, Reality Check’s main mission is to “deglamorize smoking and deconstruct tobacco industry advertising,” according to a press release.
On site to further drive the message home was Ken Schlather, director of the Cooperation Extension, who said Reality Check is an important organization for three reasons. First, it addresses high priority issues for youth. Second, it draws strengths and expertise from young people first hand. Last of all, their approach towards smoking contributes to the development of other youth-oriented issues.
Joe Wilson, City of Ithaca fire chief, was also on hand to celebrate the organization’s commitment to educating young people about not only the dangers of the smoking, but also the advertisements that lure them to smoke in the first place.
“When young people take a stand, the community takes a stand,” he said.
What separates Reality Check from most anti-smoking organizations is that they are not an anti-smoking organization. Rather they are part of the anti-tobacco industry. Thursday’s conference aimed at highlighting some of the techniques big tobacco companies use to entice teens to start smoking. The presentation singled out point-of-purchase advertising gimmicks as sneaky ways to make smoking accessible to kids. The point-of-purchase advertising campaign is a marketing strategy in which convenience store owners place advertisements around their stores at a lower eye level so kids are more likely to see the advertisements.
To alleviate this problem, Ithaca High School senior Jill Morgan proposed that “for every ad displayed, the owners should also put up an anti-smoking advertisements to balance the store out.”
Another problem that was touched upon at the conference was the issue of smoking in the movies. Scott Williams of Trumansburg Middle School stressed that most kids have difficulty distinguishing reality from fiction and as a result, receive mixed signals about the dangers of smoking when it is glamorized by their favorite celebrities.
“They don’t see the consequences of smoking,” he said.
Williams proposed to curb smoking advertisements aimed towards teens by taking smoking out of the movies.
“Like the way they do with violence in the movies, smoking should also be made a rating criterion since it is harmful to kids,” he said.
Thursday’s presentation is part of a process to build up support for Tobacco 19, T-19, a county proposal by Tompkins County Legislator Nate Shinagawa ’06 to raise the age requirement for purchase from 18 to 19 years old.
Steven Good of Grand High School pointed out that 80 to 90 percent of adults started smoking before the age of 18, so by raising the age from 18 to 19, the city would be able to keep cigarettes out of the hands of teenagers.
“The data shows, thus far, that changing the smoking age from 18 to 19 limits the supply of cigarettes at high schools and thus curbs teen smoking — a time in which people are most likely to form an addiction,” Shinagawa said in a statement.
However, most people in attendance at the conference admitted that changing the legal age of purchase from 18 to 19 “was not the best way, but a way to take smoking outside of high schools,” according to Morgan.
Victoria Hershey ’08 and Svante Myrick ’09, who helped Townsend organize the conference, explained that education is key in preventing tobacco usage.
“The more people are educated, the easier it is to avoid the downward spiral,” Hershey said.
Morgan agreed, referring to friends who had seen the anti-smoking advertisements posted by Reality Check around school.
She said, “They have no idea about the risks. The school is really in need of more information and that is what Reality Check tries to provide. We’re just trying to get it out there.”
On Feb. 7, Shinagawa will discuss T-19 at a meeting for the Health and Human Services Committee on the Legislature. He explained the impact of Reality Check in his decision to place T-19 at the top of his agenda.
“I’m proud that the high school students in Reality Check bring this up. … They, more than anyone, can verify and attest to how changing smoking age laws will positively affect them by reducing teenage smoking,” he said.
Correction appended: Joe Wilson was incorrectly labeled as the fire chief of the City of Ithaca; Wilson is actually the principal of Ithaca High School. Steven Good does not attend Grand High School but rather Groton High. The Sun regrets these errors.