Today is World No Tobacco Day; youth group coordinated by UK pharmacy student aims for tobacco-free future for Kentucky

By Rosa Mejia-Cruz
University of Kentucky

On this World No Tobacco Day, the importance of educating and engaging youth in tobacco use prevention cannot be overstated. The theme of this year’s observance, “Protecting children from tobacco industry interference,” emphasizes the vital role young people play in promoting healthier lifestyles and positive community change.

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 37 million youths aged 13–15 use tobacco globally, with children surpassing adults in elecgtronic-cigarette usage in all regions.

Griffin Nemeth, a student at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy and coordinator for the #iCANendthetrend Youth Advisory Board, exemplifies the significant impact young people and pharmacists can have in this public-health mission.

Nemeth’s involvement in tobacco prevention began his sophomore year of undergraduate studies through his role as a college facilitator with #iCANendthetrend, a youth e-cigarette prevention and empowerment initiative. Project Director Melinda Ickes, a professor in the UK College of Education, worked with students to bring a near-peer prevention approach to decrease initiation of tobacco use by youth, support those who are already dependent on tobacco, and ensure that student voices are at the forefront of prevention and policy advocacy.

Since 2019, the team has reached more than 20,000 Kentucky youth. The advisory board, a group of 10 high school advocates from across Kentucky, fosters a generation of changemakers dedicated to educating peers, community members and policymakers about the negative health outcomes of vaping and tobacco use.

“I am thrilled to see young people engage in something they traditionally haven’t been involved in, especially in the policy sphere,” said Nemeth. “Witnessing our Youth Advisory Board advocate for their communities and interacting with local leadership is immensely rewarding.”

A key element of Nemeth’s work is the comprehensive, yearlong training program he helps coordinate for younger Kentuckians. Each summer, new members of the Youth Advisory Board gather at UK for an in-person training session, followed by bimonthly virtual meetings throughout the year. This training includes online modules, skill-building opportunities and sessions led by near peers who are part of #iCANendthetrend. Each year, the Youth Advisory Board selects a project to work collaboratively on throughout the year to equip them with the knowledge, skills and confidence to effectively support their goals.

The #iCANendthetrend program’s efforts have earned significant recognition. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids named the board the 2024 Group Advocates of the Year, highlighting the critical contributions of youth in tobacco prevention and the necessity for ongoing support.

Pharmacists are uniquely positioned to support tobacco cessation efforts. With most people in the U.S. living within five miles of a pharmacy, trained pharmacists can bridge the gap in treatment resources, particularly in rural areas.

“Even if patients are unsure they want to begin treatment, pharmacists can ask, advise and refer, which can make a significant difference for a patient who might otherwise continue to smoke for years until a severe health condition develops,” Nemeth said. “Pharmacists can play a crucial role in early intervention.”

As Nemeth advances in his pharmacy studies, he remains committed to advocacy. He envisions a future where his role as a pharmacist intersects with his passion for public health. “There’s a significant health disparity in tobacco prevention and use, especially in Kentucky. Learning about the science and treatment in pharmacy school has further prepared me as an advocate,” Nemeth explained.

For those looking to reduce or quit tobacco use, pharmacists offer invaluable support. Many pharmacies provide resources and counseling for smoking cessation, including nicotine replacement therapies and other medications to manage withdrawal symptoms. Pharmacists can also offer personalized advice and support, making it easier for individuals to navigate their cessation journey.

World No Tobacco Day 2024 is a call to action for health care providers, communities and individuals to support tobacco prevention and cessation efforts. By combining the power of youth advocacy, the accessibility of pharmacists and the collaboration of health-care providers, educators, policymakers and community leaders, Kentucky can move toward a tobacco-free future. This comprehensive approach, which includes prevention, education, policy advocacy and accessible treatment resources, is essential for ensuring healthier lives for generations to come.

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