New Jersey students named national youth ambassadors for tobacco-free kids

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e-cigarette, vaping

Fourteen New Jersey students have been named national youth and young adult ambassadors by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (CTFK) for demonstrating leadership in fighting tobacco use in their communities.

These young leaders were among 133 youth and young adults from 33 states who participated in the CTFK’s Digital Advocacy Symposium, a five-day online training session focused on building advocacy, communications and leadership skills, according to a statement provided by CTFK.

The ambassadors will work with the CTFK 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 that are addicting a new generation of children.

The Middlesex County ambassadors include:

  • Nora Abdelfattah, 17, of South Brunswick, is a rising high school senior. She has been involved in tobacco control and prevention for two years, including through leadership with the teen-led anti-vaping group Incorruptible.US. As an ambassador, Nora will continue to build her community engagement and advocacy skills, and educate her peers on the dangers of tobacco use and industry tactics.
  • Padmavati “Padma” Balamurugan, 17, of the Monmouth Junction section of South Brunswick, is a rising high school senior. She has been involved in tobacco control for one year through her work with Incorruptible U.S., a teen-led anti-vaping group. As an ambassador, Padma will continue educating her peers on the dangers of smoking and vaping, while advocating for policy change.
  • Keith Furtado, 17, of Edison, is a rising high school senior. He is involved with Family, Career & Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) in New Jersey. Keith is a second-year ambassador with CTFK, and will continue to engage with his decision-makers on a variety of tobacco control issues at the state, local, and federal levels.
  • Sasya Koneru, 17, of the Kendall Park section of South Brunswick, is a rising high school senior. She has been involved in tobacco control and prevention for two years, as part of teen-led anti-vaping group Incorruptible.US. As an ambassador, Sasya will expand on her leadership and advocacy skills to educate her peers and engage with decision-makers for policy change.
  • Laiba Mughal, 17, of Edison, is a rising high school senior. She has been involved in tobacco control and prevention work for one year, including with her local chapter of FCCLA. As an ambassador, Laiba will draw on her experiences supporting her peers to quit vaping and take her peer-education and policy advocacy to the next level.
  • Sophia Patel, 16, of Edison, is an incoming high school senior. A second-year ambassador with CTFK, she has expanded on her experience with FCCLA to successfully advocate for policy changes at the state and federal level. Sophia will continue to foster her relationships with decision-makers, and engage her peers to join the fight against the tobacco industry.
  • Yashi Srivastava, 17, of Monmouth Junction, is an incoming high school senior. She has been involved in tobacco control and prevention for two years, with teen-run anti-vaping group Incorruptible US. As an ambassador, Yashi will continue to hone her talent for storytelling and peer-education, and grow her movement in her community and beyond to spread awareness about tobacco’s deadly consequences.

“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,” Matthew L. Myers, president of the CTFK, said in the statement. “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.

New Jersey is one of four states that have prohibited the sale of flavored e-cigarettes, along with Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island.

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, according to the statement.

In New Jersey, 4.7% of high school students smoke traditional cigarettes, while 9.6% use e-cigarettes. Tobacco use claims 11,800 lives in New Jersey each year, according to the statement.

The Youth and Young Adult Ambassadors were selected through a competitive application process and participated in the Digital Advocacy Symposium to become powerful advocates for change. In addition to gaining advocacy and communications skills, these young leaders 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, according to the statement.