Let Me Tell You Why

Sharika Shithi, an 11th grader at Stuyvesant High School and summer intern with NYC Smoke-Free, penned a powerful message about Big Tobacco’s impact on young people and why it is imperative to stand together to protect the health of teens.

I’m Sharika Shithi, and I live in Jackson Heights, Queens and I believe that we, as a society, are devolving, and let me tell you why.

In the 1900s, tobacco usage was at its peak because it was advertised to the public as having health remedies like easing pain. But, we can justify the peak with the ignorance with which society was then using the cigarettes, largely unaware of the health risks that came with it. Since then, it has been discovered, and brought to the public front, that smoking causes cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases – all of which are terminal. So why, now, are we seeing tobacco products openly being advertised to our highly impressionable youth when we, as a society, are very aware of the health risks that are brought with it. How can it possibly be justified?

We are failing our youth, and let me tell you why.

With profit, and only profit, under consideration, tobacco and cigarette companies have, against all morals, shifted their target audience to children and have several methods to ensure their audience is reached. One sly, yet highly effective, method is celebrity endorsement. When kids see famous names associated with smoking, they start idolizing and idealizing the behavior. It comes to no shock that a teen would want to be exactly like their favorite pop star.

Another effective method includes purposeful placement in TV shows. It has even been discovered that youth with high exposure to popular TV shows containing e-cigarette images are three times more likely to start vaping compared to youth without it. A very popular example of this is Euphoria, a teen drama television series deemed “groundbreaking” by many critics, that erroneously depicts drug use and addiction.

Not only is smoking strategically endorsed by youth idols, but even tobacco marketing has, of recently, been aimed at children. This can be seen through the youth friendly packaging of e-cigarettes (vapes are being advertised through youth-friendly flavors such as “strawberry milkshake” and “mango blast,” and some even contain popular youth cartoons on the display in attempts to lure the eye of young people) and through the trendy decorations and architecture of the now on the rise appearance of smoke shops. Especially in NYC, a city where brightly lit smoke shops are now found in nearly every corner, our youth are ever susceptible to falling at the hands of these industries. Personally, I know of at least 3 smoke shops within a two block radius of my school: all of them decorated with neon logos, vineyards, with trendy youth music blasting inside at all times.

Clearly, adolescent development is a weakness that the tobacco industry is purposely taking advantage of. Teenagers are in a well known stage where they may try out and explore different personas and may weigh down their individualism through separation from their parents and any rules they may have set down but when this age of exploration is intertwined with products that have consequences, like addiction, the issue becomes very real. Teenagers may start their smoking journey with the mentality that “This or that celebrity does it, so it can’t be as bad as everyone says it is” or “how can something strawberry milkshake flavored possibly kill me?” But in the long run, smoking is addictive and the “it can’t be that bad” mentality will certainly lay over into addiction in adulthood, which is why its so important that we raise awareness among our teens and provide them the resources they need to battle such big, relentless companies, before its too late.

As of 2017, the city has attempted to deal with the issue of the overabundance of licensed tobacco retailers by enacting a Local Law to amend the administrative code of NYC by restricting the availability of new retail dealer licenses and capping the number of tobacco retailer licenses in each community district at half the current amount. This was a great effort to protect teenagers and our communities, but we are still being plagued and under the influence of Big Tobacco. We need more solutions and to provide more education, build awareness and promote better health.

Organizations like NYC’s Smoke-Free chapter are good examples of resources teenagers can look to as a reliable source to help open their eyes against the false truth that tobacco companies have advertised themselves as to teens. Our joint efforts are crucial in ensuring that this next generation can finally escape the cycle of tobacco and nicotine addiction and have the opportunity of experiencing the gift of health and health equity.

For more information on NYC Smoke-Free or to lend support in ending NYC’s devastating
tobacco epidemic please visit www.NYCSmokeFree.org


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