Tennessee teens gather in Sevierville to combat tobacco use

(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli,File)

SEVIERVILLE (WATE) – Teenagers across Tennessee came together Monday to address a statewide problem, tobacco use.

The Tennessee Department of Health hosted its first annual FACT Summit, a youth tobacco prevention conference, held at the Sevierville Convention Center July 17-19. A total of 410 students attended the event, some traveling as far as Memphis to participate, with local and county health departments covering the expenses.

“We could be the generation that stops smoking, and we should be,” Mary Beth Edwards said.

The Tennessee Department of Health reported 4,700 Tennesseans under the age of 18 become new daily smokers each year, with teens buying or smoking more than 11 million packs of cigarettes annually.

Many of these youth smokers continue their tobacco habits well into adulthood, and the state is making strides to reverse the trend.

Related story: Teens smoking e-cigarettes triples, according to CDC

“I care about my peers, and I care about the people in my state and city, and I don’t want them to fall victim to the dangers of tobacco, because these are the people who are going to change the world when I am an adult,” Maya Rao said.

Through peer-to-peer education, the goal is to enlighten students with the dangers of tobacco and inspire a generation of anti-smokers.

“Most people who smoke and use other tobacco products start young,” Shelley Walker, Assistant Director of Communications and Media Relations for the Tennessee Department of Health, said. “We want to equip them with the information about the harmful impact of tobacco, the tactics that tobacco companies use to target children specifically, so they have the information and the power to fight that so they choose health and get their lives off to a healthy start and continue those healthy habits throughout their lifetime.”

More online: Tennessee Adolescent Substance Abuse Facts

The tobacco industry spent nearly $300 million on a Tennessee marketing campaign in 2013, according to research compiled by the Tennessee Department of Health. Adding to this is the peer pressure and environmental factors, with one out of four Tennesseans identifying as a smoker.

“Because they see their parents do it or they see their peers do it and they think, ‘Oh, this must not be that bad,’ and ‘If they can do it, I can do it,’ but you shouldn’t think like that,” Edwards said. “You should be the ones to stand out in the crowd.”

By engaging and informing the youth of the consequences of tobacco use, FACT Summit participants are hopeful that they are turning the page to a brighter, tobacco-free future.

The FACT Summit is modeled after successful youth tobacco-prevention campaigns across the country, including programs in Texas and Mississippi.

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