Nine Johnson County Middle School students get Healthy Policy Champion award for efforts to curb youth use of e-cigarettes

Johnson County students with Sen. Ralph Alvarado, Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky CEO Ben Chandler and award. (Foundation photo)

The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky has named nine Johnson County Middle School students as the latest Healthy Kentucky Policy Champions for their efforts to curb youth use of electronic cigarettes, both in their school and across Kentucky.

The students are Alivia Hackworth, Chloe Dyer, Laken Salyers, Emily Farler, Constance Martin, Kaylee Gibbs, Hannah Piedad, Dakota Shepherd and Jonathan Cole Butcher. Dyer and Hackworth appearin ads for the foundation’s “I Just Didn’t Know” peer-education campaign about the dangers of youth e-cigarette use.

The group calls itself “Juul Breakers” and their campaign “Juulsnotkuul.” Juul Labs makes the most popular e-cigarette among youth because the device looks like a USB flash drive, which makes it easy to hide. They are also essentially odorless and come in flavors they like.

The students were chosen for their efforts to educate their peers about the dangers of “vaping,” and for their work on a bill that would have created an anonymous hotline for students to report concerns about e-cigarette and tobacco use. The bill also included an educational component and guidelines for how to handle the reporting.

Their bill almost made it out of the legislature, passing through the Senate and to the House floor, where it wasn’t called up for a vote. But in the process of, the students educated lawmakers about teens’ rampant use of these products and their dangers, and they were given partial credit for passage of the law that makes all Kentucky schools tobacco-free in July 2020 unless a district opts out.

E-cigarettes deliver high levels of the addictive chemical nicotine, which is harmful to developing brains and primes them for other addictions. E-cig aerosol (it’s not a vapor) also has toxins and particles that are unsafe to inhale, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I am so proud of the behavior, grit, and determination exhibited by this group of kids,” Johnson County School Supt. Thom Cochran said in the foundation news release. “Even when the bill they believed in did not make it to the House floor to be voted on, this group of young people persevered. They took their message directly to superintendents throughout the state, and have continued to push for policy change in dealing with the Juul and vaping epidemic.”

The award was presented in Paintsville by Foundation CEO Ben Chandler, who said, “I’m inspired by the level of homework this outstanding group of middle schoolers have given, and keep giving, to addressing what has become an epidemic of teen vaping in Kentucky and nationwide.”

He added, “Adults who are health advocates … can talk all day long about this issue, but when lawmakers look into the eyes of a group of kids trying to address a problem they see every day in their school, it touches a chord. These kids’ testimony helped put us over the top in getting legislators’ support to make all Kentucky school property tobacco-free, and they’re raising awareness of the issue among parents, school officials and their peers, both in Johnson County and throughout the commonwealth.”

The group is now eligible for the Gil Friedell Policy Champion Award, which comes with a $5,000 grant from the foundation to a Kentucky-based nonprofit of the winner’s choice. The winner will be announced at the foundation’s Howard L. Bost Memorial Health Policy Forum Sept. 23 in Lexington.

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