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A RE@L Conversation With Elyse Less, Executive Director of The Minnesota Tobacco Free Alliance

by | Jul 11, 2021 | RE@L StudentCorner | 0 comments

At RE@L, we believe the best opportunities to make a difference in the education of children is through collaboration. Together, we become smarter! Such is the case in our ongoing connections with Elyse Less, the executive director of the Tobacco-Free Alliance (TFA). Recently, our RE@L team’s special consultant, Tacy Mangan (TM), facilitated an online conversation with the very busy, tobacco-free advocate, Elyse Less (EL).

TM: First of all, what is your role with the organization?

EL: I’m the executive director of Tobacco-Free Alliance. I’ve been with the Tobacco-Free Alliance for more than four years, which is an offshoot of the Association for Nonsmokers Minnesota (ANSR), a non-profit organization that’s been around for more than 30 years. We work closely with partners like ANSR and other organizations, many of them part of the Minnesotans for a Smoke-free Generation coalition, a coalition of more than 60 organizations that share a common goal of saving Minnesota youth from a lifetime of addiction to tobacco. Our primary funder is the Minnesota Department of Health through its Tobacco-Free Communities grants program.

TM: Tell us about the organization’s focus on educating youth and as well as those living in adversely affected communities.

EL: The overall mission is to prevent youth from using commercial tobacco, and we’ve also prioritized communities adversely affected by industry marketing and health disparities. We focus on adversely affected communities because like the youth, the tobacco industry has a long history of targeting groups like U.S. born African-Americans, the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized communities.

TM: How has the Tobacco-Free Alliance responded to the teen vaping issue?

EL: Four 1/2 years ago when I started working at TFA, I had just started hearing about e-cigarettes. My own children were teenagers at the time and we learned a lot from them, their high school classmates and college classmates. One of my kids would say, hey, have you heard about this product? And none of us would have heard of it. And my kids and their friends would advise us about what was going on under adult radar on social media in the teen world. Youth e-cigarette use has skyrocketed in the past few years and parents, policymakers and educators are asking, “how do we fix this?”

As you know, you have an educational tool, 1Up On Vaping, that engages kids to learn about the dangers of vaping. Social norms around cigarettes have changed, and most young people perceive smoking cigarettes to be dangerous and socially unacceptable, but not vaping. So, we have to understand the appeal of why our kids would ever pick up vaping. For one thing, they come in thousands, tens of thousands of flavors and they don’t look like cigarettes.

EL: We held focus groups with teens and learned a lot from them about the “why” behind teen vaping. We engage kids in conversations about the harms, common teen stressors and healthy ways to cope with stress. There’s a need to find the right messenger, of utmost importance is someone that youth can trust which could be a parent, public health professional, school counselor, teacher or other trusted adult in their lives. Peer to peer engagement can also work, to hear kids say that vaping is not cool and is also disgusting, like most of them already feel about smoking cigarettes. Some kids also have this misperception that “everybody vapes.” But that’s not the case, and having youth advocates as part of the conversation is important to dispel this myth.

EL: We also do parent workshops on the topic of ways parents can engage their teens in conversations about vaping and risky behaviors in general. It’s really important for kids to know they can have these hard conversations with their parents and that you are a trusted adult in their life who they can talk to you about the things that they’re doing and the questions that they have without “getting in trouble.” For example, we suggest to parents to start a conversation. Share a newspaper article about the vaping epidemic and ask your teen’s opinion, what do they see at school? What are their thoughts about this? Ask what they know about these products. The goal is to keep the dialogue open. And of course, it’s important for parents to set clear guidelines about healthy behavior and establish clear and specific rules as part of a broader conversation.

TM: You mentioned that you work with youth advocates. What do they say to other students about vaping?

EL: One of the most important parts of our work is engaging youth to become tobacco prevention advocates. Having an older peer talk to teens about the healthy things that they do in their life, that’s one piece. But we have another important piece. Some of our youth have become advocates who work with decision makers. They meet with decision makers and speak at city council meetings and testify at MN legislature committee hearings. They talk about students vaping in their school bathrooms, in class, at parties, how they see friends who just vaped “for fun” now doing it every day or turning to cigarettes. They are the ones telling their stories about what they’re seeing among their peers.

TM: What do you think the teens get out of becoming advocates for the MN Tobacco-Free Alliance?

EL: They get to develop and build their own self efficacy skills, and have a seat at the table with leaders, decision makers and educators. They learn that they have a voice. I’ve heard some of them say, “I can talk to my decision makers in my community and help make positive change about whatever issue I’m interested in.”

TM: What are some of the priorities for the Tobacco-Free Alliance going forward?

EL: We really want to continue to build the peer-to-peer network and have peers educate younger kids about vaping prevention. We want kids to be continually engaged and leading these educational efforts as well as have a seat at the table, at the local level and at the national level. As far as policy, is concerned, ridding the market of flavored tobacco products is a priority for us and a huge priority for the Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation coalition.

TM: We relate definitely to what you said about explaining to young people that vaping really is like smoking and equally as dangerous.

EL: Some youth know that vaping is tobacco, contains nicotine, and has many of the same risks as smoking. When you ask kids about cigarette harms, they’d talk about smoking causing heart disease, lung cancer, and are disgusted by the negative smells of cigarettes. Most of them say they would never smoke a cigarette. We talk about they know so much about the harms of smoking because we have 70-plus years of research that tells us that cigarette smoking causes cancer, heart disease, and other life-threatening harms. We get them to think about the fact that e-cigarettes have only been around for a bit more than a decade, we know that the vapes that are popular with kids contain high doses of addictive nicotine, and we are learning more and more every day about e-cigarette harms, and we still have more to learn. But we do they want to take that risk with their health?

TM: How important is it for students to share information about the dangers of vaping with other youth?

EL: One effective tool we worked on this year with MDH, Masonic Cancer Center and other organizations, was a statewide video contest called “Escape the Vape.” Teens were invited to create video PSAs for their peers about the harms of vaping. Now we have these amazing videos created by Minnesota teens that we can share with communities throughout the state to use a prevention tool.

We hope to continue projects like this, because then you’re getting this great material that’s created by youth, they listen to it and it’s more effective than adults making posters or lecturing teens about harms.  We underestimate how smart kids are, how savvy they are and how important it is to have their voices as part of the solution.

TM: Do you think we’ll ever have a tobacco free society?

EL: Up to this point, public health was doing really well lowering youth tobacco start rates, which was the key to defeating nicotine addiction overall. And then along came e-cigarettes. National data from 2020 shows youth smoking at a low of six percent. But vaping is more like 25-30 percent for high school students. So, it’s a game of Wac-A-Mole™ and you hear that a lot, because every time you have a policy change to help stamp down the problem, new tobacco products pop up. But we continue to educate youth and hopefully future generations will think of vaping as being equally as harmful as smoking and make the choice to never start vaping.

TM: We second that mission! Thank you for doing your great work.

The RE@LBlog team believes it will require a Herculean effort on the part of everyone, including legislators, educators, parents, and students alike to bring an end to this current vaping crisis. Are you with us? By working together, we can make the collective difference!

Thank you, Elyse Less and the Tobacco-Free Alliance for making us stronger together!

Randy Nelson

Author

Randy Nelson is a retired educator of 38 years. He served students as a high school speech, theater, and English teacher. He served colleagues as a director of curriculum and instruction; and, mostly recently he served the La Crosse, WI school district as its superintendent of schools. He has a strong leadership track record promoting choice and innovation via unique community partnerships. He currently serves RE@L.com as its Director of Education.