News and Events

A Call to Action from the National Conference on Tobacco or Health
By Kristina Zachry
September 1, 2019

I recently had an extraordinary experience representing the QuitDoc Foundation with a colleague at the National Conference on Tobacco or Health in Minneapolis, Minnesota. My mission was to help share information during the conference’s poster presentation about QuitDoc’s education-based youth cessation program, which I contributed to during its early research stages. The program is called Vaping 911, and, in all honesty, I didn’t realize that the name Vaping 911 predicted the theme of this conference with such amazing prescience.

It’s hard to explain how incredibly inspiring it is to be surrounded by national tobacco control professionals who all have a shared passion for youth tobacco use prevention, cessation, and improving health outcomes via research and policy change. It was refreshing to be on the same page with everyone as far as background knowledge of the evolution of tobacco control, the predatory marketing practices of the tobacco industry, and the alarming rapid rise in the popularity of, and addiction to, JUUL and other similar e-cigarette products among the nation’s youth.

Dr. Brian King, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Closing Plenary)

With this baseline knowledge already established, this conference was able to focus on multi-level public health solutions designed to reach the most vulnerable disparate populations who are still using tobacco, such as minorities, people with mental health conditions, and those with low education and income. By weaving the lens of health equity into the context of all local tobacco policy and systems change discussions, the tobacco control movement can level the playing field for health outcomes and reduce the burden of tobacco addiction for vulnerable individuals in our local communities.

The conference featured several educational tracks for participants, with many sessions covering various topics happening concurrently. The sessions I chose to attend focused mainly on policy change and youth empowerment. Specifically, I attended a discussion on local tobacco retailer licensing policy change strategies that have been successful in other communities at the point of sale for tobacco. Flavor restrictions on non-cigarette tobacco products, restricting the sale of tobacco to adult only establishments, raising age of purchase to 21 years old, and restricting the sale of tobacco in pharmacies or within a certain distance from schools are all policy strategies that local communities can take to help reduce the tobacco industry’s influence on youth and adults.

Additionally, I attended sessions focused on engaging youth in prevention; understanding the impact of exposure to tobacco use across media, such as episodic programs on television, online streaming platforms, and video games; and how to reach youth with effective messaging to discourage their usage of e-cigarette products. Specifically, an organization called Rescue presented findings from focus group testing of anti-vaping messages for youth. They presented five key points to remember when creating messages for youth: they are aware of the harmful effects of cigarettes, but not vapes; youth like the perceived minor risk of vaping/rebelling; they are concerned about toxins in their bodies; they DO NOT believe they can become addicted, but they DO fear becoming the person who appears addicted; and they don’t want to be misled by anyone – the vaping industry or tobacco control professionals. I found these insights to be very helpful for future conversations with local youth about vaping.

Dr. Jerome Adams, U.S. Surgeon General (Opening Plenary)

The conference was bookended by opening and closing plenaries that were not only informative but engaging and heart warming as well. The keynote speaker was Vice Admiral Jerome Adams, MD, MPH, the 20th Surgeon General of the United States. Dr. Adams has an impressive professional resume, but what that doesn’t tell you is that he grew up working on his grandfather’s tobacco farm and understands firsthand the impact tobacco addiction can have on families, as he lost his grandfather from lung cancer due to life-long smoking. Dr. Adams also suffers from asthma, so he is keenly aware of the dangers of secondhand and thirdhand smoke and the importance of policy changes to ensure clean air. His call to action about the youth vaping epidemic was heartfelt, sincere, and urgent.

The closing plenary included a presentation from a young adult who shared his experience with addiction to nicotine through JUULing, which started at the age of 14. His ordeal included a grand mal seizure and extensive drug rehab. I found his story to be very compelling and his take home message was specific. His message to the adult audience about helping teens recognize and overcome their addiction to nicotine is for adults to develop a personal connection with youth and instead of asking “why?” ask them “how” - how they feel when they use these products and how they feel without the products. He specifically said that teens who are addicted are scared and feel alone and they need a shoulder to lean on right now.

As an adult who has spent the last thirteen years in tobacco control mentoring local teens, I feel that it’s our duty as tobacco control advocates and community leaders to be that shoulder for the teens in our community. We need to help them overcome their newfound and powerful addiction to nicotine, educate them on why they should never start using tobacco, and help pass local policies that restrict the tobacco industry’s influence on our most vulnerable populations, including teens. The kids are counting on us to protect them.