By David Palmer
If Perez can keep kids beginning as early as first grade and up through high school, from smoking, they may never smoke, and they may never use harder drugs. And if they have started, which is often the case, she’ll do her best to get them to quit.
Perez directs one of many initiatives under the state Department of Health “Stamp Out Smoking” (SOS) umbrella, which is funded by the Youth Leadership Initiative grant and directed by Dr. Carolyn Dresler, whose substantial resume includes surgical oncology. She has actually operated on the devastating effects of tobacco, whether smoked or chewed, on patients.
Just to put the devastation in perspective, smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, killing 443,000 people a year including 4,900 per year in Arkansas, and it’s not limited to lung cancer and emphysema. Other health problems associated with smoking include: heart attacks, asthma, bladder cancer, brain tumor, cataracts, cervical cancer and cheek and gum cancer.
Dr. Dresler’s view of the tobacco landscape is daunting, but, she says, it is especially rewarding when you are saving a child from premature death, disease and possibly a lifetime of addiction to nicotine and other drugs.
Perez agrees. Operating out of a modest office cluttered with anti-smoking signs, copious literature and a variety of props that include a model of the inside of a mouth hideously deformed by the effects of chewing tobacco, Perez attacks tobacco companies with gusto and encourages young people tempted by addiction.
When she travels, which is often, she drives a bright red 1987 Town and Country covered with anti tobacco advertising material like a billboard on wheels.
Never a smoker herself, Perez is a credible and hip advocate of her cause. A jazz singer with a voice, some say, reminiscent of Billie Holiday or Etta James, Perez has a graduate degree in professional and technical writing, teaches college level English composition, served in the Air Force for four years and runs her own business. She is also married with four kids.
Since 2003, Perez has been in charge of the statewide Tobacco Control Youth Board (TCYB), which was formed under the state’s “Youth Leadership Initiative” (YLI) banner.
The goal of TCYB, which has 34 members in grades 7 through 12, is to reduce tobacco consumption among the youth of Arkansas and to promote healthy choices through a variety of programs
All TCYB members are elected youth leaders from all counties of the state that are committed to pushing the youth leadership initiatives agenda for a Tobacco Free Arkansas.
Lizette Castillo, now out of high school and attending the University of Arkansas is no longer eligible for service in TCYB but stays in touch. In her testimony to young people she primarily credited her father for her decision not to smoke, and it underlines the importance of parental guidance in this sensitive area.
“My dad said that he could be athletic or smoke,” she said, “and he chose to be athletic. He’s in the best shape of his entire family. That was the path he took, and that’s the path I took.”
When asked what she would say to a friend who smokes or is trying to start, Lizette said, “I would say, ‘Do you know how bad that is for you?’ I keep brochures with me. A lot of the guys on the baseball team used spit tobacco, and I showed them pictures of leukoplakia, or mouth cancer.
“And when one of my really good friends started smoking, I told her it would turn into an addiction, and that she would become one of the numbers. I never try to criticize them or judge them. I try to just give them some facts.”
Current TCYB members Josylin Mitchell of Little Rock and Morgan Smith of Imboden (population 500) spoke of their experiences, and their comments reveal a seriousness of purpose.
This is what Josylin, 16, had to say: “The number one thing I hope to accomplish is to know that I may have actually saved a life. That life could be one out of the 14 Arkansans who die each day from tobacco-related illnesses or diseases.
“But also, I would like to carry my advocacy skills into my college, workplace and the community once I graduate from high school. TCYB has helped me tremendously in developing my communication skills.”
Fifteen-year-old Morgan had the following comments:
“My town has many of the new tobacco products that look very ‘cool’ to young kids, and I can tell you that if they really want it they can get it. In my working with TCYB I have successfully started my own drug-free club and have learned tons of skills to hold my own lessons and assemblies.
“If we can just reach one school of say 300 then that would bring the smoker average down, and just think, if those kids, told their friends, and so on. We could reach tons of kids across the state.
“I plan to go to collage and major in pre-med, with a minor in writing. I have decided that I want to get into the medical field possibly as a family doctor treating mainly children or become an advice columnist. What really matters to me is that I continue to change the views of people about drugs and alcohol or other problems in the world today.”
One of the TCYB programs is Y.E.S (Youth Extinguishing Smoking), a statewide, youth-led anti tobacco movement and counter marketing campaign organized with statewide chapters in schools, tobacco free coalitions and community groups.
Perez finds the efforts of tobacco companies to market their products to children particularly offensive, and she uses exhibits showing packaging of cigarettes, snuff and chewing tobacco products especially designed to look like candy. She and “Y.E.S.” team members expose these tactics to their juvenile audiences.
Efforts to stop smoking don’t cease with high school graduation. There is growing momentum for promoting smoke-free college campuses. In fact, the Arkansas Clean Air on Campus Act of 2009 (Act 734) requires that buildings and campuses be smoke free.
SOS has developed “Tobacco Free policy” statements that colleges can use as they implement the smoke-free mandate.
The two-page comprehensive statement begins with, “The University recognizes its social responsibility to protect the health of students and staff by providing tobacco-free environments.
There are 14 major detailed points that follow. Here is a sample of the ground they cover. The policy:
• Prohibits tobacco anywhere on University grounds. That includes University vehicles
• Applies to everyone 24 hours a day: students, faculty, visitors and work crews, no exceptions
• Prohibits tobacco industry sponsorships of all campus events including athletics
• Prohibits tobacco company sponsorship of campus career fairs or other vocational or recruitment activities
• Prohibits the University from investing endowment funds and other funds in tobacco-related businesses, and
• Requires the University to provide tobacco cessation materials on campus.
The Tobacco Free Policy statement also includes information on implementing the policy.
For those who balk at these SOS initiatives, Dr. Dresler reminds them that smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. and yet one out of five adults still smokes despite the high cost of cigarettes and the growing stigma.
This is bad enough, but secondhand smoke kills another estimated 53,000 non-smokers a year, a point that is often overlooked and is increasingly emphasized by SOS and others.
The Coalition for a Tobacco Free Arkansas says “Secondhand smoke is the third leading cause of preventable death in this country. For every eight smokers the tobacco industry kills, it takes one non-smoker with them.”
The coalition goes on to say, “what the smoker does to himself may be his business but what the smoker does to the non-smoker is quite a different matter. We are not telling people they can’t smoke, we’re asking them not to smoke in a way that harms others.”
Dr. Dresler’s focus is on getting tobacco users to quit and also to discourage people from even experimenting with tobacco.
“One out of three who try smoking will become an addict,” Dr. Dresler says.
Most of the deterrents to tobacco use are in place and Dr Dresler wants to make them stronger.
The high price of cigarettes through heavy taxation, at about $6 a pack in Arkansas, is enough to deter a lot of people, and she supports even higher costs if that’s what it takes to deter use.
She also favors laws prohibiting smoking in all enclosed places and fining violators because of the deadly effects of secondhand smoke.