Kicking the habit WNY teens join statewide initiative against tobacco companies

“This is a smoke-free zone, sir,” said Elizabeth Valasquez, an eighth-grade student at West New York’s Public School No. 4 to a gentleman smoking by the bar at the annual West New York Youth Football League Awards Dinner at the La Terraza Restaurant recently.

Valasquez and four of her classmates is a member of REBEL (Reaching Everyone by Exposing Lies), a statewide youth initiative against tobacco companies. Three of the members, Valasquez, Jackie Rodriguez and Adrianna Villagomez, presented the group’s message to the children and parents who attended the dinner. Cinthia Diaz and Karla Morales, the other two members of the group, could not attend the dinner.

The movement, which began with a Kick-Ash weekend in November sponsored by the state’s Department of Health and Senior Services, carries the message that teens no longer want to be targeted by tobacco companies in their advertisements.

“We are trying to prevent teens from smoking,” said Adrianna Villagomez, the secretary of the West New York youth chapter.

REBEL is sponsored locally by each county’s chapter of Communities Against Tobacco. Besides West New York, Hudson County has REBEL chapters in North Bergen, Kearny, Harrison and Bayonne. “We take the program to the schools,” said Rebel’s Hudson County youth coordinator, Elizabeth Morales, who works with the Hudson County chapter of Communities Against Tobacco.

The program works with seventh and eighth grade students with the hope that the eighth grade members will take REBEL into the high schools with them.

Close to home

On Nov. 18 and 19, Valasquez and vice president of the group Jackie Rodriguez attended the Kick-Ash weekend in McAfee, N.J., which focused on using art, theater and literature to help promote their message.

“We learned many different ways to tell tobacco companies that we do not want to be their target anymore,” said Valasquez.

“We learned the facts about how tobacco companies are targeting teens and how to motivate teens,” said Vice President Jackie Rodriguez.

When the two girls came back to school, they worked on recruiting and training new members to also take part in REBEL.

Now, the West New York REBEL chapter is working to prevent kids at school from smoking cigarettes. “There is a lot of peer pressure between students,” said Villagomez, who said that many of the students in school smoke.

“We are trying to get the message across to kids in school,” said Valasquez. “We are very determined and are going to keep trying.”

However, with the help of Morales, the REBEL chapter has been able to team up with the West New York Youth Football League to pass their message on to other children in their town.

“These are their projects,” said Morales who said that these girls have many great ideas to get their message across. “I am just there to egg them on.”

With money from mini-grants that each chapter receives, the REBEL kids offered to help sponsor the Youth Football League. The money in this grant helped pay for the awards dinner on Feb. 3 as well a banner that is hung in Miller Stadium during games that reads “This is a smoke-free game,” and T-shirts. “We are happy to help,” said the president of the West New York Youth Football League, Joe McLean. “We are a perfect vehicle for their message, being a youth football league.”

“We try to enforce discipline and provide a positive atmosphere so that the kids are not on the streets,” added McLean. “Their anti-smoking message is right in conjunction with that.”

When you count both football players and cheerleaders, the league includes more than 130 children from ages seven to 14.

“These kids will hear what [the REBEL] kids have to say,” said Morales, showing how the sponsorship can benefit REBEL.

A resolution prohibiting smoking in Miller Stadium was also proposed to the town’s Board of Commissioners. This resolution is expected to be on the agenda for the Feb. 21 board meeting.

Not for sale

According to the campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the tobacco industry spends $157 million in advertising each year in New Jersey alone. Valasquez said that most of this advertising is targeting teenagers.

“Their main focus isn’t on adults anymore,” said Valasquez. “They are trying to buy us with their advertising and merchandise.”

To battle these ad campaigns, REBEL is creating an advertising campaign of its own.

On Feb. 16, the teens from all REBEL chapters in the state will launch their advertising campaign at the Liberty Science Center.

The Not For Sale campaign was created to tell tobacco companies that teens do not want to be targeted in their commercials.

“The Not for Sale Campaign is telling big tobacco that we do not want to be their profit,” said Valasquez. “We do not want to be their replacement smokers.”

Morales said that working with teenagers is working in their fight against tobacco.

“They do not want an adult to preach to them,” said Morales “But they will listen to the kids.”


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