FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - If some high school students with a Native American for Community Action (NACA) youth program have their way, Flagstaff parks could be tobacco free, which they say would benefit the health and environment of kids today.
NACA's Arizona Students Aiming for Prevention (ASAP) program, formerly known as the Native Youth Coalition, was established about four and a half years ago. The students are from Flagstaff High School. They collaborate with Coconino High School's Coconino Anti-Tobacco Students (CATS) program. The program is funded through Coconino County tobacco and chronic disease program, which is a part of the Bureau of Tobacco and Chronic Disease through the Arizona Department of Health Services. The program is also part of the statewide movement Students Taking a New Direction (STAND).
The groups have been working on a policy to make Flagstaff parks tobacco free through Coconino County, with a focus on those who visit those parks and have no say in whether they are exposed to tobacco.
"With this policy the kids are trying to pass, it's the safety of the children who are there, the families who are there...the ones who can't say, 'Don't smoke around me, that stinks,'" said Tenillya Cody, health and youth coordinator for ASAP.
She added that both groups have picked up numerous cigarette butts in three well known Flagstaff parks - Thorpe, Bushmaster and Wheeler - an experience that was pretty nasty. The plastic bags and gloves reeked of cigarette smoke and were stained with nicotine. The kids' hands, though covered in gloves, also still smelled when the gloves were removed.
"With the butts left on the ground, you never know who is going to pick them up, not only the children but pets and that can get into their system and harm them," Cody said. "It is not just the second hand smoke it is also the littering of the parks."
Only seven or eight parks in Arizona are tobacco free. Nationwide, there are around 1,000. The groups have met with the parks and recreation commission. If Parks and Rec support the groups' policy then it would go to Coconino County Parks and Recreation and eventually to the Flagstaff City Council. But Parks and Recreation commissioners had a few concerns.
"They are more focused on how it is going to be funded," said Jason Allison, marketing and outreach specialist for NACA. "That's kinda the only resistance they had. They're worried about how it is going to be enforced and the maintenance of it, whether we will have signage and stuff like that."
According to the group's policy, enforcement will not include handing out tickets or having police patrol the areas. Group members want more public education, to give out information cards and train staff on what to look for along with simple signage to let those who want to use the parks for events know the areas are tobacco free.
"That was one of the main points we wanted to make clear," said Tiffany Kerr, public health educator for the Coconino County Public Services District. "We're not asking for police to patrol. A lot of the other parks that have passed this are all different. Some have people who patrol and some don't."
Cody said part of the point of the policy is to change people's perception of smoking.
"The youth coalition wanted to go toward changing the norm around smoking," she said. "People look at alcohol in a different way than they used to now. With this policy, it is changing the socialization of smoking."
The commission also asked the kids how they knew that second hand smoke causes health issues.
One of the kids, Deliah Coleman, responded to the questioner, "Well, if you can smell it, statistically, you're inhaling it or you're ingesting it."
They also know they will encounter smokers who believe that it is their right to smoke where they want.
Kerr said that resistance is expected but she wants people to remember that the groups are not trying to tell people what to do more than they are trying to help people.
"The people who are resistant who are smokers and we're taking that freedom away, we're just trying to help the youth because they don't necessarily have a voice to say, 'Hey, you're smoking, get away from me, you're hurting me...,' she said. "So that's always our response, we're trying to help those who can't really help themselves and we're trying to help you as well."
Allison said he has a personal reason for being involved in the group. He was a heavy smoker and was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.
"Smoking helped put me in the hospital," he said. "For the rest of my life I am on medication. I tell the kids, it's not that cool."
Cody said the reasons she hears that kids start smoking are the normal ones: peer pressure and seeing their families smoke. Cody said that a lot of the kids have their first cigarette by the age of 12.
"I've heard kids say, it makes them look cool," Allison said.
The packaging and tobacco's use in movies just reinforces that, Kerr said. And the ads are targeting at younger and younger ages.
The commission also brought up that the kids are Native American and that traditionally Native Americans use tobacco in ceremonies.
Coleman, who is a senior at Flagstaff High School, said tobacco use in ceremonies is very different than other types of smoking.
"There's a difference in the way that commercial tobacco is made and how traditional tobacco is used and produced - it's organic compared to the thousands of chemicals that go into a single cigarette as opposed to something that comes from the land in nature."
She said the way cigarette use is exploited and abused by big commercial industries is not natural.
"You're just taking in poisons and toxins and that is not a healthy lifestyle," Coleman said. "As opposed to where traditional smoke is used for ceremonial reasons and it's a sacred thing. It's spiritual and mental and it connects you with our sacred dieties, entities and our own selves."
At first, she didn't agree with the policy at all. She saw smoking as a personal choice. But she changed her mind when she realized that it is more than just one person affected when someone smokes. It is everyone around them, their families and their friends.
"That is something that I see as an issue, especially because addictions run so deep within Native American communities," Coleman said.
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