Young crusaders

Brothers Nicolas and Sebastian Suarez were joined by Maddie Chabab and Vanessa Rodriguez

Brothers Nicolas and Sebastian Suarez were joined by Maddie Chabab and Vanessa Rodriguez in June in a SWAT public awareness partnership with Keep Port St. Lucie Beautiful. They promoted cigarette litter prevention and tobacco cessation for city employees. DEBRA MAGRANN

State campaign rallies students in battle with Big Tobacco


A student advocacy group is fighting fire with fire against the tobacco industry, a formidable foe whose former goal was to entice them into a lifetime of smoking. The corporate plan to promote and package its products to youth has backfired because a new generation has seen the results of smoking along with the rewards of a healthy lifestyle and a campaign to stop the use of tobacco.

Supported by Tobacco Free Florida and the Florida Department of Health, the St. Lucie County chapter of Students Working Against Tobacco represents the best in young people: conscientious, empathetic and knowledgeable. Open to students in middle and high school, including homeschoolers, with chapters in every county, the program rallies young peers to de-glamorize Big Tobacco through direct action and education. Youth-led and youth-driven, they are united and empowered, working toward a tobacco-free future.

Tobacco Free Florida, launched in 2007, is funded by the state’s tobacco settlement fund and is administered through the Florida Department of Health’s Bureau of Tobacco Free Florida.

SWAT provides teens with skills like intervention education, data collection and community assessment through monthly trainings.

“They are a very sophisticated group,” coordinator Serena DeFrank says. “I am so proud to work with these students.”

SWAT teens are committed to Taking Down Tobacco, a training event held at Kaiser University with more than 75 adults and youth in attendance that emphasized the push to #BeTheFirst tobacco-free generation. The group partnered with Keep Port St. Lucie Beautiful this summer at a Mets game and a city hall awareness outreach that promotes cigarette butt control.

Maintaining a public presence, local chapter members have taken to the streets against tobacco litter, participating in the local Adopt-a Street program and joining the St. Lucie County Health Department at the Main Street Fort Pierce annual Sights and Sounds on Second Christmas Festival and Parade. They’ve even participated in flash mobs with other chapters. Their 2018 events will include the St. Lucie County Fair with additional statewide activities.

“They work feverishly every week with skill building in a multitude of areas,” DeFrank says.

SWAT members, educated on the dangers of smoking, know how addictive nicotine can be. In an effort to influence their peers, lawmakers and society, teens are championing the I Quit message using social media, community surveys and old-fashioned networking.

Sebastian Suarez, a 17-year-old senior from Port St. Lucie, is president of Lincoln Park Academy’s SWAT chapter. He also is the Florida SWAT Youth Advocacy Board co-chairman and the South Regional co-chairman of Tobacco Free Kids — all while maintaining high grades in the International Baccalaureate program at LPA. Sebastian, who joined when he was in sixth grade, has also served on a regional Leadership Council and is president of the St. Lucie County SWAT chapter.

“Serving on the YAB provides me with the opportunity to make a difference for not only my region, but for all of SWAT and the people in the state of Florida,” Sebastian says.

His favorite tobacco control observance is the Great American Smokeout, an annual one-day challenge to give up smoking. Every commitment begins somewhere and the American Cancer Society sponsors the day in the hope that people will try to quit.

Millions of adults smoke, and tobacco use remains the most preventable cause of disease and premature death in the nation, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Smokers agree it’s a habit they hate, but is hard to break. Many parents who smoke don’t want their children doing it, either. That is why SWAT chapters exist: To train students in the root causes of why people smoke, what the physical effects are on the body including nicotine addiction and preventing their peers from using tobacco and its related products through education and awareness.

“My mom was a smoker,” Sebastian says, “but she quit cold-turkey. It can happen.”

Explaining that her habit began as a youth, she quit during pregnancies.

“It was a monumental event when she quit and inspirational to see her kick the habit,” he said. “That’s why I am so passionate to help educate others and change the thinking of my generation,” adding, “We are anti-Big Tobacco industry because they target youth and adults. Our mission is to empower and equip the public and de-glamorize smoking.”

When someone does quit, “Their success is ours. We are not anti-smokers,” he states.

Sebastian’s older brother, Nicolas, 18, is a freshman at Boston University studying political science and international affairs. He became a tobacco control advocate after watching his mother struggle with smoking-related health problems. Joining SWAT inspired his mother to quit smoking.

As the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids’ 2017 National Youth Ambassador — Southeast Region — Youth Advocate of the Year, he attended a weeklong Youth Advocacy Symposium in Washington, D.C. Demonstrating leadership in fighting tobacco in their communities, these advocates are chosen as representatives of their state through a competitive application process.

Working with the Port St. Lucie City Council, the older Suarez brother pushed for a proclamation to raise the visibility of the Great American Smokeout. He also represents The Truth Initiative, a nonprofit tobacco-control organization dedicated to making tobacco use a thing of the past.

“I see them (Big Tobacco) as taking advantage of the weak, using predatory targeting in poor neighborhoods and Third World countries,” he says, noting that smokeless tobacco is just as dangerous. “Race car drivers and baseball players need to be role models where the tracks and fields need to be tobacco-free zones,” he adds. “There are big issues. If we keep this in the spotlight, it will reduce addiction.”

SWAT is supported by Tobacco Free Florida and the Florida Department of Health. TFF, administered by the Florida Department of Health’s Bureau of Tobacco Free Florida, is funded with money from the state’s tobacco settlement agreement with the major tobacco companies in 1998.

Maddie Chabab, 17, of Port St. Lucie, is also a senior in the IB program at LPA. In just two years, she became the SWAT state chairman for YAB, vice president of the county chapter and a board member of the Bureau of Tobacco Free Florida. She lives by the faith that anyone can change society.

“One policy in particular that I would like to focus on in the coming year is sec
ondhand smoke, especially its effects in multiple housing units such as apartment buildings,” she says. “Cigarettes are the only product when used as intended, are meant to kill.”

Vanessa Rodriguez, 17, is another senior from Port St. Lucie in the IB program at LPA. Her international background gives her a flair for diverse audiences: Her dad was born in Cuba and her mom, a smoker, is Chinese. Co-hosting Your Community — Your Campus with Chabab, the teens show how cigarette butts can impact the environment.

“The industry targets us,” Vanessa says. “We are youth with a purpose and can speak up.”

Americans’ collective view of smoking has changed from blanket acceptance to a threat to everyone’s health — children included.

Government policies, many backed by state constitutional amendments, along with federal excise taxes, have largely driven cigarette smoking out of public view. Thanks to smoke-free laws, tobacco is banned on airplanes, in government buildings and a growing number of bars, restaurants and college campuses. The sun has set on the days when tobacco was marketed to spring break students.

High school SWAT members transition to college chapters. Dr. Patricia Corey, director of the Health and Wellness Center at Indian River State College says what is most inspiring is their determination and motivation — along with their willingness to work against the industry.

“Since 2015, IRSC has been the recipient of the American Legacy Tobacco Prevention Grant,” Corey explains. “The goal was to explore the possibility of creating a tobacco-free environment on all IRSC campuses.”

A Tobacco Prevention Task Force was established to explore campus attitudes about tobacco use and in August, the school’s board of trustees approved a policy change making IRSC a tobacco-free and smoke-free campus.

Under the policy, smoking and the use of any form of loose leaf and smokeless tobacco products in all facilities and areas owned or leased by the college is prohibited. The policy covers new technologies (e-cigarettes), too. All employees, students, guests and members of the public are required to adhere to the policy.

Equipped with a tobacco-free website, IRSC eliminated specific trash receptacles while providing tobacco cessation options. The two-hour Tools to Quit class is free and replaced the traditional six-week smoking cessation program. Participants develop a quit plan, identify triggers and receive information on dealing with cravings and nicotine withdrawal symptoms.

Additionally, if medically appropriate, participants are eligible to receive free nicotine replacement in the form of patches, gum, or lozenges along with support via phone, text, or the web. Obtaining help through counseling or medications can increase the chances of quitting successfully.

Some people can quit abruptly; others may lack confidence and may need encouragement. As with weight loss, there are support systems and alternatives to reach goals and attain a desired outcome.

Accused of a 50-year conspiracy to deceive Americans about the hazards of smoking, ignore development of safer cigarettes and target youth as new customers, Big Tobacco hid behind a smokescreen. Its mantra, “I believe nicotine is not addictive,” was echoed by executives who denied culpability before congressional panels. Yet, the high cost of state-supported healthcare and the toll of death and disease proved otherwise. When the 1964 landmark surgeon general’s report was issued, the public took notice.

The end of the 20th century marked a shift in public perceptions of tobacco as litigation exposed the industry after four decades of failed cases. Florida, with three other states — Texas, Mississippi and Minnesota — settled with the tobacco industry before the Master Settlement Agreement of 1998, resulting in the largest, individual legal settlements in history — $40 billion.

There are approximately 100 toxicants in mainstream cigarette smoke that penetrate the lungs — ammonia, arsenic, benzene, cadmium, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide and isoprene to name a few. Cigarettes are extensively engineered in the tobacco leaf process to be delivery devices for nicotine and other ingredients.

SWAT teens know most people smoke for the calming effect, though addicted, die from the tars and other cancer-causing chemicals. For them, the health threat is real. Healthcare providers say the most effective way of quitting is to use nicotine replacement therapy along with behavioral support, while those in another camp say e-cigarettes are a safer alternative to smoking. Many see them as a low nicotine, life-saving alternative that frees them from cigarettes.

A firestorm is brewing that health professionals and anti-smoking proponents agree is a grey area: vaping. Nicotine, one of the most addictive substances known to mankind, is at issue. E-cigarettes could renormalize smoking and calls for global regulation have divided opinions among healthcare experts. In the U.S., bans on e-cigarette TV advertising do not apply.

Seen as a breezeway to target young smokers, vaping — a $32 billion global market — is blowing away tobacco. Sweetened by luscious flavors like bubblegum and sexy names, the lithium-powered devices are on the radar for regulation and Big Tobacco is attempting to clean up its tarry image by rolling out its alternative: e-tank starter kits.

It seems that Big Tobacco has come full circle, entering a harm reduction phase, taking a new position as good corporate citizens while switching gears to introduce a new generation to electronic nicotine. It’s compact. It’s hip. And the trend has lit up entrepreneurship.

Worth billions in the global market and growing, e-cigarettes were first developed in China by a chain-smoker and introduced to the U.S. market in 2007. Big gets even bigger as tobacco manufacturers double-dip in two markets — their defense being, since caffeine is a drug and soda companies are allowed to sell flavored water and soft drinks sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, why shouldn’t they be allowed to sell e-cigarettes and tobacco.

The latest data (2015) shows that the efforts of Tobacco Free Florida have helped reduce the state cigarette smoking rate to a record low. Its campaign offers free cessation help through education, support groups and motivational tips.

“At the end of the day, tobacco companies have money, but we have the future on our side,” Sebastian Suarez says.