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From Your Local Lung Association

TENNESSEE - In a world where lung cancer takes more lives than any other cancer, protecting our children from the devastating effects of the tobacco industry is paramount to the American Lung Association. We work every day to help young people live healthier, safer lives.

The statistics are startling: Among adult smokers, 87 percent had tried their first cigarette before they were 18 years old. Tobacco use during childhood and adolescence not only can cause major health problems, but people who begin smoking at an early age are more likely to develop a severe addiction than those who start at a later age.

Students presenting the TATU program

But through a partnership with the Tennessee Department of Health, the American Lung Association intervened to teach young people across the state about the dangers of tobacco. Tennessee was among 46 states that settled lawsuits with major tobacco manufacturing under the Master Settlement Agreement. Beginning in 2013, the Tennessee Tobacco Settlement Program has distributed $15 million over three years to pay for programs that will help address the state’s high rate of tobacco use, with youth intervention designated as a top priority.

“It’s unprecedented in Tennessee, and we were very excited because this was the first time funds were specifically set aside for youth programs,” said Program Manager Danielle Brown of the American Lung Association in Tennessee.

The American Lung Association and the Tennessee Department of Heath introduced the Teens Against Tobacco Use (TATU) program, which allows high school students to mentor younger children about the dangers of smoking. Research indicates that teens enjoy opportunities to positively influence their younger counterparts. Consequently, this mentoring also serves to reinforce their decisions to remain smokefree.

“The TATU program was particularly appealing to us because of the peer mediation format. It benefits students of all ages. While the younger ones learn about the risks of tobacco use, the older ones are learning about responsibility, public speaking, education, and other important life skills,” said Mia Jackson Gordon, Tobacco Prevention Program Coordinator at the Nashville Metro Public Health Department.

“And I’ve seen the incredible difference this program can make first hand,” she continued. “These students come from homes where all of their role models use tobacco. They need someone to say ‘Look, there’s nothing cool about smoking, and here’s why.”

Evidence suggests that peer-led programs such as TATU are more effective in reducing tobacco use among youth, and the teens understand that when they sign up.

According to 16-year-old TATU participant Morgan Back, her relationship with the younger students allows them to better relate to her and her message. “It’s important to be a role model for them because they don’t usually pay attention to adults. They tune it out. But since we’re in high school and more like a sibling, it makes more of an impact on them because they want to be like us.”

Since the Tobacco Settlement Program began distributing funds, at least 60 counties across Tennessee implemented TATU, teaching thousands of young people about the dangers of tobacco. But to teens like Morgan, “It’s just rewarding knowing that kids look up to you.”

See program highlights from Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio.

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