SALT LAKE CITY — A crowd of high school students cheered on their friends and peers who took the stage Wednesday at the Capitol to speak out against addiction to products such as alcohol, tobacco and e-cigarettes.
About 400 high schoolers from throughout the state gathered in the Hall of Governors for Youth Against Addiction Day. Several students joined Marc Watterson of the American Heart Association in speaking about health concerns related to substance abuse and addiction.
Joylani Kavapalu, 17, with Island Teens Against Tobacco, greeted her gathered peers with a cheerful "aloha" before quickly delving into the harsh realities of tobacco use in her Pacific Islander community.
"By combining a young population with a scarce college graduation rate, this leaves the Pacific Islander community as one of the vulnerable groups to the advertising attacks of these tobacco companies," she said.
Teens' vulnerability to advertising remained a common topic throughout varied discussions on alcohol and tobacco products.
"Skittles, cotton candy, cream soda, leave these flavors where they belong — on the candy aisle," said Mariah Jenson, 17, calling the use of candy flavoring in e-cigarette, tobacco and alcohol products a tactic to entice young users into lifelong dependence such products.
"In a recent study by the CDC, 70 percent of kids who tried tobacco are only doing it because of the flavors," Jenson said.
Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, met with the students to show his support for their cause, as well as to emphasize the importance of peer-to-peer advocacy.
"If my parents would tell me something, I would go, ‘No, that is just mom and dad. They have to say that,'" Daw said. "If my friends said, ‘Hey, smoking is stupid’ or, ‘Drinking is really a bad idea,' I would listen. You have a lot of influence with your peers, with your friends."
Utah lawmakers are considering a number of measures to strengthen enforcement and restrictions against tobacco use, including HB325. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, proposes to increase the penalties for selling tobacco to a minor.
A change to the legal smoking age has not been considered at the Legislature this session, though several student speakers suggested it as a solution to early tobacco access.