Sixth-grader Bailey Barnes used a purple marker to color in an “O” on Come Join Us Clean The Park, a poster she was making Saturday afternoon as part of an Ellis County teen effort to get kids to stop using electronic cigarettes.
“My father died from smoking,” said the 12-year-old Barnes, as she colored in the O. “Last year in March.”
Barnes and other local teens want to draw attention to the health hazards of e-cigarettes with a two-hour cleanup in Frontier Park East from 4-6 p.m. Thursday, with the help of adults from the nonprofit Smoky Hill Foundation for Chemical Dependency Inc.
Working at the same table with Barnes on Saturday was sixth-grader Breckan DeWald, 12, also making a poster at the Smoky Hill offices, 2714 Plaza Ave.
“We’re gonna clean up the cigarette butts, and put flags up everywhere we find a butt,” DeWald said.
The kids are members of a national youth advocacy group called Resist, which has 20 chapters in Kansas. The Hays chapter is one of only two in western Kansas, with the other 18 in eastern Kansas.
Barnes and several of her friends will be in Topeka on Thursday to lobby lawmakers for help with the e-cigarette cause.
“It’s a youth-led movement to fight back against big tobacco companies,” said Alisha Dinges, chronic-disease risk reduction coordinator at Smoky Hill, an adult outpatient drug and alcohol treatment provider serving northwest Kansas.
“We went in to every Ellis County school and did presentations, to show them ‘tobacco companies are really targeting you,’” Dinges said. The colorful devices, with juice refills packaged in candy-like containers, are manufactured to look like pens, key fobs, thumb drives, even the ends of strings on hoodies so kids can walk down the halls at school and not get caught.
“They are marketing to youth,” said Dinges, “so I tell them you have to fight back.”
The Resist activities are the first locally funded by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment aimed at preventing vaping and juuling, which some kids have chosen as a replacement for conventional cigarettes, she said.
“Kids are thinking that it’s a safer route, but it’s untrue. That’s what they’re using to market it,” Dinges said. “When they inhale it into their lungs, they’re bringing in nicotine, volatile organic compounds, ultra-fine particles, and they’re still getting their cancer-causing chemicals, then nickel, tin, lead, and then the product called diacetyl, which is what creates popcorn lung, it’s a flavoring.”
Dave Quillin, wellness director with the Hays Recreation Center, on Saturday was writing up a poster of Kansas e-cigarette statistics.
One in three Kansas high school students have tried e-cigarettes, Quillin wrote.
One in 10 currently use e-cigarettes. And one in five have seen other students vaping or juuling in school.
But those are 2017 KDHE numbers, said Dinges.
“It’s more now,” she said. “It’s higher than that now.”
In the past year alone, vaping among high schoolers has increased 78%, according to the federal Food & Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products. More than 60 deaths have been confirmed in 28 states related to vaping, and more are under investigation, Dinges said.
Hays Rec offers more than 600 programs to youth in the community, said Quillin, so it made sense for the center to support Resist.
“We’re taking one of our vans down to Topeka, so providing transportation. We’re just trying to be as helpful as we can to facilitate the youth,” he said. “They’re going to have more impact than we are.”
Barnes said kids her age don’t realize the dangers of electronic cigarettes.
“People are naive that this can happen,” Barnes said. “I think I can impact kids just by helping them realize, ‘this could happen to us,’ because we’re not any different.”
She was one of 100 Ellis County students to sign up for Resist, with the first wave of active members, about 18, deciding to clean up the park.
Saturday at Smoky Hill, Hays Middle School eighth-grader Jillian Sheldon, 14, was working on posters that she hopes to put up at school and at gas stations.
“My dad used to smoke,” Sheldon said. “Obviously he never wants me to do it. He knows smoking is not the thing to do, and he doesn’t smoke anymore.”
She was working on the poster with Sela Sumaya, 12, a sixth-grader at Hays Middle School.
Sumaya said she sees kids vaping and juuling both outside school and in school restrooms. She got involved with Resist through Sheldon.
“We’ve known each other a very long time, and our parents are friends,” Sumaya said. “I feel like my sister has inspired me to do it because a lot of her friends are into juuling and vaping and she’s very much against it.”
The kids in the Hays chapter are also planning another project, said Dinges.
“Our goal next year is to organize some smoke-free, vape-free parks in Hays. They actually have them in Wichita, they have them in other cities in Kansas,” she said. “We’re going to start in Hays but our goal is to get parks in Ellis County. We’re going to start with Frontier, the main one, and I’m sure that will get some heads turning, but it’s for our youth, it’s for our kids.”
Quitting e-cigarettes or smoking isn’t easy, said Sumaya.
“It does take a process to quit; they can’t just quit,” she said, snapping her fingers.
But there is help in Hays, Sheldon said, for someone who wants it.
“They can come to the Smoky Hill Foundation,” she said.
There’s more information at Ellis County Resist on Facebook and Instagram. Other partners with Smoky Hill, Hays Rec and the schools in the coalition include FHSU, Hays Police Department, Ellis County Health Department, CASA of the Plains, Western Kansas Child Advocacy, United Way and many others.