More than 350 high school students from more than 40 North Carolina counties jammed the General Assembly building today to give lawmakers an earful about funding tobacco control programs.

Students from SE Halifax High School line the gallery above the NC House of Representatives chamber
Students from SE Halifax High School line the gallery above the NC House of Representatives chamber

North Carolina has been running tobacco prevention programs aimed at young people for about a decade, using money the state receives annually from the master settlement agreement made with tobacco companies that ended lawsuits by states’ attorneys general in 1998.

“We’re here today to celebrate with others that 53,000 fewer people in North Carolina smoke because of TRU,” said 17-year-old Ruth Ekane from Grimsley High School in Guilford County, referring to the Tobacco Reality Unfiltered (TRU) campaign that focuses on preventing teens from starting to smoke.

“The legislators have done so much for us, passing laws and stuff. We want them not to change their minds, but let them know we’re grateful,” Ekane added.

North Carolina spent about $17.3 million last year on tobacco control programs last year, that until June, were funded through the Health and Wellness Trust Fund.

According to the national Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, North Carolina received about $431 million in revenue from the tobacco settlement in 2011.

17-year-old Grimsley High School student Ruth Ekane
17-year-old Grimsley High School student Ruth Ekane

Last year’s budget eliminated the trust fund and moved $22 million of its money to the Division of Public Health in a one-year, non-recurring appropriation. The Division of Public Health continued the tobacco control funding.

“That allowed us to extend our contracts out for one more year,” said Pam Seamans, head of the North Carolina Alliance for Health, who helped organize yesterday’s legislative. “But after June 30th of this year, we don’t know what will happen.”

Seamans said she believes the teen tobacco prevention programs have reduced the number of kids who start smoking. About 16.7 percent of North Carolina high school students now smoke, down from more than 27 percent of students in 2003. The current rate is below the US rate of 19.5 percent.

“We have the lowest rate of teens smoking in North Carolina history,” Seamans said. “We want lawmakers to see the tremendous success of these programs and how well they’e working.”

Dozens of teens wearing matching sweatshirts and t shirts jammed the galleries of both the House and Senate during the short legislative session lawmakers held yesterday afternoon. Meanwhile another several hundred kids held a raucous rally in the legislative auditorium adjacent to the house and senate chambers. Teens from around the state got up to testify about their involvement in the anti-tobacco campaign to loud cheers and applause.

“My grandfather died on Christmas from lung cancer,” said 15-year-old Hannah Douglass from Mallard Creek High School in Mecklenburg County.

“A few weeks later, I helped my aunt stop smoking. I was wearing my TRU t shirt and she asked me about what we did. I explained to her what happens when you smoke, and the chemicals in smoking and stuff. A couple days later she went and got some nicotine patches and stopped,” Douglass said to cheers from the crowd.

In the hallways after the legislative session, groups of teens crowded around lawmakers, who smiled and asked them to tell their stories. An advisor said many of the students had met with their legislators earlier in the day to ask for continued funding for the programs.

Mecklenburg County students Hannah Douglass and Morgan Rosenhauer show off their temporary tattoos
Mecklenburg County students Hannah Douglass and Morgan Rosenhauer show off their temporary tattoos

“My leader, he taught me to speak to people, now I’m used to speaking to people about my story,” said 15-year-old Niya Sneed from North Vance High School.

“We have training sessions, and we go to elementary schools to tell them about the effects of tobacco. We do meetings and presentations… I’ve learned a lot from TRU,” Sneed said.

Sneed’s grandfather, who was her primary caretaker, died in 2010 of emphysema. She choked up as she talked about the experience of watching him struggle to breathe. She said the experience has inspired her to become a pediatric nurse or a pediatrician.

“I want my story to help other people so they won’t have to go through what I did,” she said.

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...