Missouri youth take on challenges of anti-tobacco advocacy

Mar 20, 2014

On a Thursday morning in late February, a group of 100 middle and high school students gathered in the rotunda of the state capitol building in Jefferson City for a capitol day event organized by the Tobacco Free Missouri Youth Advisory Board. Their goal was to speak with their legislators about making the building smoke-free. Unlike every other public building in Jefferson City, the capitol building doesn’t entirely comply with the city’s smoking ban - lawmakers are unofficially allowed to smoke in their offices.

“They absolutely have the right to smoke and we’re not telling anyone they don’t,” said Youth Advisory board member Alex Higginbotham, age 17. “They can still smoke in their home, but we’re asking them in public not to affect us.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Missouri is ranked 48th in the nation for number of adult smokers - roughly 1 in 4 Missourians over the age of 18 smoke. And the state ranks 50th for workplace exposure to second-hand smoke.  The state’s Clean Indoor Air law gives business owners the option to declare a public space smoke-free, or to set up a designated smoking area. If communities want to be truly smoke-free, it’s up to local governments to make that happen. In the fall of 2010, Jefferson City banned indoor smoking in public spaces, including the capitol building. But state legislators continue to not-so-secretly smoke in their offices.

That’s why students from South Harrison High School clustered in the middle of the rotunda on capitol day, discussing what they should say to their state legislator. Some of these kids had to get up as early as three in the morning to take the four hour bus ride from Bethany, Mo.  Several of them hunched over a piece of paper, scribbling down what they were going to say to Republican Senator Brad Lager, from Missouri’s 12th district.

When it comes to the issue of smoking, the students at South Harrison have actually been here before. In 2005, South Harrison brought the Smokebusters program to their school. Until it lost its funding a few years ago, Smokebusters was a statewide program that encouraged youth to avoid tobacco use and advocate for smoke-free environments. Cole Wright was president of Smokebusters at South Harrison when he was a junior and senior, and led the group in petitioning the school board to make the school’s campus smoke-free. And they ended up succeeding, but it wasn’t easy.

“The board didn’t pass the idea for two or three times,” Wright said. “It’s a small community, there’s a lot of people who smoke.”

The school board argued that in order to enforce such a law, school officials would have to pluck cigarettes out of peoples mouths, which they have no right to do. He predicted there would be significant pushback from lifelong smokers, which would cause conflict.

Historically, high-schoolers haven’t been known to influence public policy all that much. But Traci Kennedy, Executive Director of Tobacco Free Missouri, says young people can be really effective advocates. They’re energetic and stubborn, and predisposed as teenagers to challenge authority figures.

“The policy making process is never perfect and there’s always challenges that come up along the way,” Kennedy said. “But youth want to confront those challenges.”

More than adults, she says, kids have a tendency to stick with it.

“Sometimes with our adult advocates we hear things like ‘We’ve tried that before and it didn’t work, this will never happen in our town,’” says Kennedy. “But for young people, that just isn’t on their radar. They don’t care, and they really want to push the envelope.”

That was the case with South Harrison’s students, as well.

“We stayed persistent,” Wright said. “We stuck with this one idea instead of saying ‘Hey, ok this one didn’t get passed…, we stayed with making the entire campus smoke free and eventually it got passed.”

Now that persistence was about to come in handy again, as the students stood outside the senate chamber addressing Lager. A girl from the senator’s current hometown of Savanah chimed in and deliverd the argument for a smoke-free capitol.

“We're in an interesting period right now, cause this is really a personal freedom fight that you’re talking about,” Lager said.  “Personal offices have always been off limits [to the smoking ban], primarily cause it’s just like your house. So I actually share your opinion that I don’t like to smell smoke, but I’m not willing to trample on personal freedoms.”

The senator gave the students the same argument they heard from the South Harrison school board – that enforcing a smoking ban would be too difficult, and is the first step down a slippery slope. Despite the senator’s inaccurate view of what constitutes personal property in the capitol building, his speech worked. The students were silent.

The Senator said goodbye and returned to the senate chamber, and the students headed back to the rotunda. There were mixed feelings about what just happened.

We got it out there on the floor for discussion, and both sides had good points, so I think it went pretty well,” one girl said. “It feels like we didn’t get it on any floor,” said a boy.

It’s not that these kids just accepted Lager’s flawed argument that the capitol building is like a person’s home, it’s just that as students, they don’t know any better. They don’t pay for this building through taxes the way their parents do, and their knowledge of state government isn’t yet sophisticated enough to make that point. In the end, what makes these kids such promising advocates actually held them back – this time. The students from South Harrison admit they would do it all again.

I don’t know if it would be the same thing but, yeah. I love doing this kind of thing.”