CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Nearly 500 middle and high school students were at the State Capitol Tuesday raising awareness about the dangers of tobacco, along with the newest highly addictive threat to young people– vaping.

The students are a part of the West Virginia youth-led tobacco prevention movement known as RAZE, and they came to the capitol for the 20th annual Tobacco-Free Day.

The one-day event helps to educate not only the students about the dangers of tobacco and now vaping, but a volunteer at the event and a director with the American Lung Association, Chaste Barclay, said it also brings up the issue to the Legislature during the 60-day session about what’s being done to get a handle on it within their schools and communities.

“They are also talking to them about what they are doing to educate their communities,” said Barclay. “We provide some educational sessions here to help them prep and then go talk to the Legislature.”

Indy Tupa, an 11th-grade student at Frankfort High School in Ridgeley, and Breanna Cutright, a 10th-grader at Liberty High School in Clarksburg, have been in the RAZE program since early high school.
Tupa said she joined the program to get more informed of the dangers of tobacco for her father’s sake, as she said he had been smoking since before she was born. However, she said after she joined the program and was able to offer her dad the tips and tools needed to quit smoking cigarettes, he did just that.

Both of the girls said that while cigarette smoking is still seen as cool for some of their peers, they unanimously agreed that vaping is where the real problem in young people lies.

Cutright said she joined the program to inspire her peers that there’s more to fitting in than what vaping can offer.

“Everybody sees vaping and stuff like that and says, ‘Okay, it’s cool, it’s popular, and I’m going to do it because I want to be cool, I want to be popular,” she said. “So, they’re doing those things to be cool, but they are damaging themselves and they’re hurting themselves to be cool.”

Tupa added that it’s about learning to say ‘no’ and not giving in to peer pressure.

“I think it’s really important to know that you can be in an environment with tobacco and nicotine, but you have to make the choice for yourself because you obviously can’t control the people around you, and if your best friend started vaping and you don’t want to vape that’s fine, I think you should help that person because party culture is super prevalent in today’s youth, but I just think it’s super important to make the choices for yourself and not for other people,” said Tupa.

According to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, more than 1 in 3, or over 35% of high school students in West Virginia report current use of e-cigarettes or vapes, a 150% increase from 2017 and 2019 alone. The DHHR also states that the issue has become an epidemic in the state and vaping rates here are rising faster than rates across the country.

Barclay said that e-cigarettes and vaping are just as addictive as tobacco and traditional cigarettes themselves despite the misconceptions.

“They all contain nicotine and are very highly addictive, so young folks are getting more addicted to these products, and their brains are still developing, nicotine alters your brain chemistry and so it just causes a lot of different addiction issues later in life,” said Barclay.

Cutright said students with RAZE feel it’s important that it’s them being the voice to encourage their peers against the issue, because, she said someone their age explaining the dangers of smoking in a more relatable way might leave more of an impact on them rather than having an older person telling them.

“If somebody our age comes in and is like, ‘okay guys, lets really take a look at what you’re doing,’ then they understand more and they’re also more likely to listen, because peer pressure is huge and they all want to be cool, so if we get a huge group of young people that are against vaping and tobacco, then they’re going to start seeing that,” said Cutright.

Tomorrow, Wednesday, Jan. 24 the American Lung Association of West Virginia will release its 22nd annual State of Tobacco Control report, which evaluates state and federal efforts on prevention programs, state tobacco taxes, and smoke-free workplace laws, among other efforts focused on the control of tobacco use in the state.