Oklahoma state law prohibits tobacco use on school property between the hours of 7 a.m. and 4 p.m., but not all schools restrict tobacco use on all of their properties or at all of their events. Comprehensive smoke-free policies, like Olustee’s 24/7 tobacco-free policy, are an important step in building a healthier future for our youth. These policies create a safe and healthy environment for students, faculty, and staff, while sending a clear message that tobacco use is not a socially acceptable behavior and about the dangers of tobacco use. Tobacco-free schools reduce exposure to secondhand smoke and encourage tobacco users to consume less of this addictive product – and possibly to quit.
The importance of de-normalizing tobacco use through positive role-modeling cannot be overlooked. If students don’t see teachers, coaches, school faculty, parents, and visitors using tobacco, then they’ll be less likely to think tobacco is acceptable and will be less likely to start using. Nine out of ten current smokers started when they were teens. In Oklahoma, 10,400 youth (under 18) become new daily smokers each year. Tobacco use initiation often leads to lifetime of addiction, resulting in tobacco-related disease and premature death. Current data suggests that 87,000 kids under 18 and alive today will prematurely die because of smoking.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that schools develop and enforce policies to prohibit tobacco use by students, staff, parents, and visitors on school grounds; in school vehicles; and at all school-sponsored events, on or off school property. As of April 2012, all schools in Jackson County have 24/7 tobacco-free policies that do just that. The Jackson County Tobacco Education Committee and Students Working Against Tobacco have worked hard to campaign for these policies and continue to work to raise awareness about their importance by posting signs such as the one pictured in Olustee. Education is one of the most effective ways to prevent youth tobacco use and to keep them safe from exposure to secondhand smoke. Schools that are not tobacco-free send conflicting messages to students about the dangers of tobacco use and the health effects of secondhand smoke. It’s important to continue teaching Oklahoma’s youth about socially responsible and healthy behaviors, including not using tobacco. Teaching by example is the first step in doing so.
Youth are three times more sensitive to tobacco advertising than adults. With the tobacco industry finding more and more creative ways to target teens with ads and new products designed to look and taste like candy, it is more important now than ever to educate teens about the dangers of tobacco. The only way to prevent more youth from becoming “replacement” smokers is to change the social norm so that tobacco use is no longer a socially accepted behavior.