Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States.
Hearing that fact at a conference just before my freshman year in high school changed my life. It lit a fire in me to change the lives of others my age by preventing them from starting down a road to lifelong tobacco addiction.
Now, as a senior at Pineywoods Community Academy in Lufkin, I’m among the youth asking the Texas Legislature to pass a law to stop the sale of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to Texans younger than 21.
My life and the lives of thousands of other young Texans depend on it. About 95 percent of smokers start before age 21. In Texas, 7.4 percent of high school students smoke — that’s 118,600 children — and more than 10 percent use e-cigarettes. With e-cigarettes growing in popularity, those statistics will rise if action isn’t taken.
I became passionate about and active in the fight against tobacco when I attended a conference held by Students, Adults, and Youth Working Hard Against Tobacco! (Say What!), a statewide youth tobacco prevention coalition. What I thought could be a fun event became a life-changer.
I started a Say What! club at my school, which now has 15 members, and have expanded my advocacy statewide and even nationally.
I know plenty of children who regularly smoke cigarettes, vape or dip tobacco. It doesn’t matter if you’re not 18 — tobacco products are easy to get because younger students attend school with children who are old enough to legally buy them.
In my four years with Say What!, I’ve seen an astounding increase in e-cigarette use at my school. My observations are supported by statistics. A recent report found that e-cigarette use grew nationally by 1.5 million children between 2017-18.
I don’t think anyone in high school starts smoking, vaping or dipping with the intention of making it a lifelong practice. But for many, that will be the case. Children my age think we’re invincible and don’t believe we’ll become addicted.
My classmates have told me they think e-cigarettes are harmless water vapor, not addictive nicotine. These misconceptions are why lawmakers need to pass tobacco protections that include e-cigarettes and similar products.
Talking to my classmates hasn’t been easy. I’ve gotten pushback and arguments, even from those who don’t smoke. But I refuse to get discouraged; every person I can convince to stop using tobacco, or not to start at all, is a win when you consider that experts say 498,000 Texas children alive now will ultimately die prematurely from smoking if current trends continue.
Last fall, San Antonio became the first city to raise the tobacco sale age to 21. A couple of others have followed. That’s great, but it’s only a start. All Texas children deserve a chance for a long, healthy life. That’s why I support a statewide law to raise the tobacco sale age to 21 to keep tobacco out of all high schools and help all Texas children.