By Rose Hoban
Any given day at the North Carolina General Assembly finds groups of schoolchildren lined up outside the glass double doors waiting for tours and to sit in the gallery to watch lawmakers in the afternoons.
But a group of 41 kids from a charter high school in Durham actually jumped into the task of advocacy, pushing lawmakers on a range of issues from teen tobacco-cessation funding to policy changes around cancer chemotherapy drugs.
“I’m just generally trying to advocate and support for all these bills, especially the tobacco education,” said 15-year-old Katerina Lamm, one of the students from Steven Gatlin’s civics and economics class at Voyager Academy.
Lamm said the students wanted to support a proposal by Rep. Gary Pendleton (R-Raleigh) to put $7 million into youth tobacco-prevention education.
The last time the North Carolina state budget had any of those kinds of funds was in 2012, when the legislature eliminated the last funding for the Tobacco. Reality. Unfiltered. program, which had helped drive down teen smoking rates to a historic low of 15.5 percent. Before the T.R.U. program began, the high school smoking rate was 43 percent.
Cigarette smoking rates have stayed low, but usage rates for electronic cigarettes has skyrocketed almost 900 percent over the past four years, according to the most recent Youth Risk Behavioral Survey. The YRBS found more than a third of high school students had tried a vapor product.
“I know personally people who are affected by e-cigarettes and all these arising problems,” Lamm said. “It doesn’t seem like [my peers] really care, and I think it might be that they’re not educated about it.”
The kids started their day wearing bright red shirts and standing as the backdrop for speakers at a rally in front of the legislative building, which featured a large sign reading, “Our KIDS > $0,” referring to the lack of state funding for teen tobacco education.
Pendleton, a retired Army Reserve brigadier general, told the kids about receiving cigarettes in his C rations when he first joined the military in the 1960s. But he said there’s still a long way to go on reducing tobacco use.
“The legislature has been failing to do its job on smoking cessation,” Pendleton said during the rally, adding that, “180,000 more kids under aged 18 now use tobacco products.
“Think about how many of those will die prematurely.”
Sen. Stan Bingham (R-Denton) told the kids it was “disappointing” that there’s been no money for tobacco prevention, and he talked about the problems with e-cigarettes
“They’ve got bubble gum flavor and any kind of other flavors to attract children to smoke these, but this is definitely not water vapor,” he said. “It’s addictive and it’s a health hazard.”
After each speaker, the kids responded by chanting, “More than zero … more than zero,” and cheering.
After the rally, the kids broke into groups to visit lawmakers to advocate for the tobacco-prevention funding. Several had boned up on other priorities being pushed by the Cancer Action Network, a grassroots group affiliated with the American Cancer Society.
At one point, a group of four girls got onto an elevator to go up to a lawmaker’s office. When asked where they were going, Stacey Oxendine started to read, “Floyd Mc …”
“You’ve got him,” piped up Sen. Floyd McKissick (D-Durham), standing opposite.
Everyone laughed. Getting off the elevator, McKissick escorted the girls into his office, past others already waiting to see him. He carved out about five minutes to hear what they had to say.
“In 2011, we had the lowest rate of cancer, um, not cancer, but tobacco use in teens. And so, now that we stopped funding them, the funding for teens to get, um, awareness of tobacco, um, and what it can do to you, the rates have started to go up in different ways,” said Oxendine. ”So not as many kids are using cigarettes, but they’re finding ways like hookah pens and bars and vaping and all this other stuff.”
McKissick nodded and encouraged her. He told the girls a history of how the former Health and Wellness Trust Fund was used to distribute the $140-some million North Carolina receives annually as a result of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement. But after the HWTF was dismantled, the money for cessation went away.
“I commend you 200 percent, getting the money there,,” McKIssick told the girls. “If possible, we could get something from the health and human services budget to go to that, and we’ll certainly look into it, without a doubt.”
Afterwards, Oxendine said she was nervous speaking to the senator.
“I felt like I was going to mess up, like you’re actually talking to someone with some kind of importance who can actually do something,” she said. “You’re actually putting forth the effort to change something.”
‘Like we own the place‘
Putting forth effort was the point, said Gatlin.
He explained Voyager Academy uses the technique of project-based learning for the students to tackle complex issues. He was accompanied by English teacher Carly Connor, and the two of them had been working with the kids to learn about the Cancer Action Network’s issues. One student had researched several chemotherapy drugs, others had looked into the policy issues around food deserts; they’d written essays and had talking points to use with lawmakers.
And then they came to Raleigh to make it all real.
“Other kids were here today being treated like, you know, kids, lining up, getting a tour, having someone tell them how it all works,” Gatlin said. “But our kids walked in like we own the place. We were giving them some access and understanding as to how it really works.”
Some took to speaking to lawmakers easily. Others had to be coaxed. But all of the kids said they’d gained something.
At one point, Connor put her arm around one of the girls to encourage her: “Next office, I want you to say something. That brain in there is too good to be quiet.”