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WASHINGTON — Three West Virginia students, including one from Huntington, have been named as National Youth and Young Adult Ambassadors by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids for demonstrating leadership in fighting tobacco use in their communities.

They were among 133 youth and young adults from 33 states who participated in the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids’ Digital Advocacy Symposium, a five-day online training session focused on building advocacy, communications and leadership skills.

The Youth and Young Adult Ambassadors will work with the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids to advocate for effective policies to reduce youth tobacco use at the federal, state and local levels. These policies include ending the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including flavored e-cigarettes.

The Youth and Young Adult Ambassadors from West Virginia include:

  • Joseph “J.R.” Ash, 13, from Huntington, a rising eighth-grade student. He has been involved in tobacco control and prevention for two years, including through his local leadership in RAZE. As an ambassador, Ash will continue to develop his leadership skills to advocate for strong tobacco control policies and educate his peers on the dangers of smoking and vaping.
  • Erin “Gracie” Ross, 17, from Charleston, an incoming high school senior. She has been involved in tobacco control and prevention for three years, locally with the group RAZE. As a
  • n ambassador, Ross hopes to sharpen her communications and policy advocacy skills to heighten awareness of tobacco control issues among her peers and with decision-makers.
  • Madison Sites, 21, from Sugar Grove, an incoming college junior. She has been involved in tobacco control for several years and has continued her advocacy as she has gone on to college. As a fourth-year Tobacco-Free Kids Ambassador, Sites will continue to level up her activism for strong tobacco control policies, and act as a valuable resource for younger ambassadors and students trying to build their movements.

“We are thrilled to welcome this new class of Youth and Young Adult Ambassadors, whose passion and leadership will help us create the first tobacco-free generation,” said Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “Young people are critical voices in the fight against tobacco because they speak from experience about how they are targeted by the tobacco industry. Policy makers should listen and support strong policies to protect our kids, including a prohibition on all flavored tobacco products.”

While the United States has greatly reduced youth smoking, use of e-cigarettes among young people has skyrocketed in recent years. From 2017 to 2019, e-cigarette use more than doubled among high school students (to 27.5%) and tripled among middle school students (to 10.5%), according to the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey. More than 5.3 million kids used e-cigarettes 2019 — an increase of more than 3 million in two years. Sweet flavors like gummy bear, mint and mango have fueled the popularity of e-cigarettes among kids.

Other flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, are also popular among youth. The tobacco industry has a long history of targeting kids, black Americans and other groups with marketing for menthol cigarettes and other flavored products. More than half of all youth smokers today — including seven out of 10 black youth smokers — smoke menthol cigarettes.

Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, killing approximately 480,000 people and costing about $170 billion in health care bills each year.

In West Virginia, 13.5% of high school students smoke traditional cigarettes, while 35.7% use e-cigarettes. Tobacco use claims 4,300 lives in West Virginia each year.

The Youth and Young Adult Ambassadors were selected through a competitive application process and participated in the Digital Advocacy Symposium to become advocates for change. In addition to gaining advocacy and communications skills, they learned about how tobacco use is a social justice issue because of tobacco-related health disparities due to the tobacco industry’s longtime targeting of minority populations.

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