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Anti-tobacco group celebrates law

By MICHAEL SANDLER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 3, 2001


BRANDON -- Taurean Wong belonged to many clubs during his four years at Plant High School. But the graduating senior never realized the potential of after-school activities until he joined Students Working Against Tobacco.

The local chapter of the national youth organization, comprised of high school students from around Hillsborough County, lobbied hard last year to restrict the marketing of tobacco products to teens.

As a result, the Hillsborough County Commission passed an ordinance in December restricting the placement of tobacco products. That law went into effect Friday, perfect timing for the student members who planned their annual SWAT summit one day later.

"It's a great way to learn about life," said Taurean, 18, who was at the Brandon Recreation Center on Saturday and was among the 60 students reveling in the recently passed ordinance. The new law requires all tobacco vendors to keep products locked or behind counters, and to keep advertising at least 4 feet off the ground.

"We have power we never knew existed," he said.

In addition to celebrating the victory, the group of about 60 students elected a new board of directors, listened to guest speakers, and spent the day participating in role-playing and team-building activities designed to teach leadership skills.

"They can affect things," said Ray Lader, a graduating senior from Charlotte High and a SWAT member on the state board. He came to address the group on behalf of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a separate organization with a similar message.

"They don't necessarily have to be in charge (to bring about change), but they can have their say," he said. "People don't necessarily take youth seriously, and that needs to change."

Many students say they joined the group because they noticed their peers puffing on cigarettes as early as elementary school.

"I think they do it because they think it makes their image look better," said Allison Myers, the outgoing chair who will be a junior at Bloomingdale High next year. Allison said she became agitated by cigarette advertisements in magazines that showed glamorous images of women smoking.

"Big colorful ads that are actually quite interesting," she said. "They see that and get the idea that they need to look like that."

But many agreed that the club offered them unusual responsibility that few extracurricular activities afford.

Taurean, who plans to study mass communication next year at the University of Central Florida, said he was amazed at what high school students can do.

"It was an incredible way to bring out teenagers as leaders and show they have a voice," he said.

- Michael Sandler can be reached at (813) 226-3472.

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