North Carolina’s teen cigarette-smoking rates have been falling steadily since 2003, and reached a historic low in 2011 as increasing numbers of young people pledge to remain tobacco-free.
According to the 2011 N.C. Youth Tobacco Survey, the state’s middle school smoking rate dropped to 4.2 percent in 2011. During that time, the high school rate dropped to 15.5 percent.
These are the all-time lowest rates for each group, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
A DHHS press release noted an apparent correlation between tobacco prevention efforts and the lowered rates. Since September 2007, the release said that nearly 10,000 North Carolina high school and middle school youths have pledged to stay tobacco-free in an initiative sponsored by the TRU (Tobacco. Reality. Unfiltered.) prevention program.
FirstHealth of the Carolinas supports TRU programs in Richmond, Moore, Montgomery and Hoke counties.
According to health educator Melissa Kuhn, FirstHealth’s liaison for teen tobacco prevention activities in these area schools, the TRU program works because of a peer-to-peer approach that trains high school students to become role models on “how to say no” for younger students.
“The high school kids are the cool kids,” Kuhn said. “They’re the ones the younger kids want to be like.”
Young people become interested in tobacco-prevention efforts for a variety of reasons, Kuhn said. Some have parents who are tobacco users, and some have tried tobacco themselves.
“Some are just health-conscious and know it’s bad for you and want to prevent other kids from using tobacco,” she said.
Andrea Meneses, a 2012 graduate of Richmond Senior High, feels strongly about her decision to become active with her school’s TRU program.
“It is important to advocate for what is right when the majority promotes what is wrong,” she said. “I cannot expect other people to do something for the cause if I am not willing to do something myself. And so I did.”
In addition to their focus on the health consequences of tobacco and second-hand smoke, participants in TRU programs sometimes become advocates for community tobacco-free efforts and other tobacco-prevention movements.
Students involved in the RSHS TRU program have spearheaded projects like creating an online video encouraging young people not to smoke, poster and ad campaigns at the school and traveling to other schools to talk to younger students.
Although tobacco-use rates among teens are lower than they have ever been, young people continue to experiment with tobacco products, said Kuhn.
“There’s still a lot of pressure to try tobacco,” she said. “It’s that whole experimental age, and kids are so vulnerable. There’s always going to be peer pressure and wanting to fit in.”
North Carolina’s original TRU Program was funded by the Health and Wellness Trust Fund, with funds from the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement with major tobacco companies. After the North Carolina General Assembly abolished the fund last year, DHHS funding was relocated for fiscal year 2011-12, but was not set to recur.
FirstHealth of the Carolinas’ teen tobacco-prevention program has been funded by a Teen Tobacco-Use Prevention and Cessation grant since 2001.
— Staff Writer Kelli Easterling can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 18, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org