About 100 residents of all ages attended the May 25 town hall meeting on tobacco use, presented by the Youth Advisory Council at the Riverfront Community Center. YAC member Leonard Slutsky said the council chose the topic for the forum after several members noticed a lot of their peers using a new form of smokeless tobacco, known as Snus, at Glastonbury High School.
Keynote speakers Maryellen Bolcer and Susan Richards from the St. Vincent’s Medical Center Foundation presented “Swim Around the Sound,” and informative and interactive program that explains the dangers of all types of tobacco.
“The cigarette companies hate that we’re here,” Bolcer said, before talking about many ways in which tobacco companies are targeting youth.
“Nobody knows how to Wont smoke before the first time,” she said. “Everybody’s body rejects it, but the cigarette company knows that the first time someone starts smoking, the body starts creating 13 times more phlegm.”
Bolcer explained that since menthol has soothing properties, menthol cigarettes – including a new brand that “pops” to change the flavor – are being marketed to kids and teens.
“This is a scam,” she said. “You’re not smoking because you need the nicotine; you’re smoking them because your throat is killing you.”
“Slim” cigarettes are also being targeted to teen girls.
“They want you to be anywhere, smoking this skinny cigarette,” Bolcer said, “because they want your friends to say to you, ‘Oh, wow, you’re going to be thin.’ It’s a lie.”
Bolcer also showed actual samples of human lung tissue – from healthy, as well as cancerous- and emphysema-afflicted lungs.
Snus, Bolcer said, and other chewing tobaccos are actually more harmful than smoking, largely because of the addition of sodium, which exposes the user to more infections and cancers.
“Because the salt is in this product, every person who uses it has a cut in their mouth,” Bolcer said. “That cut creates puss. That puss creates the gum line to loosen, lessen, and receded. It never grows back.”
Bolcer said a package of Snus (which, non-coincidentally, is made to look like a package of mints, she said) is as toxic as four and a half packs of cigarettes.
“Within five years, one out of two young people who use this product will have mouth cancer,” Bolcer said.
Richards said she actually objects to the term “smokeless tobacco,” since it implies that the Snus is safer, when in actuality, it is just as harmful as cigarettes.
“Using those different tobacco products is now responsible for almost one-third of all of the types of cancer,” Richards said.
Perhaps the moment that had the most impact was when Bolcer asked several teens in the room to come up to the front and take a whiff from a container of used cigarette butts. She was able to accurately tell each person what part of their body or senses was most affected by the small dose of nicotine. Some felt light-headed, while some felt it more in their stomachs. Sinuses and eyes were more affected in others.
Then, Bolcer had each teen hold their arm out to the side and resist her pushing down on it. She had them take another whiff of the nicotine, and tried the same test. None were able to resist with anything close to resembling the same strength. Bolcer explained that nicotine automatically and quickly interferes with brain activity.
“You can’t tell your body to act as strongly,” Richards said.
“It was a shock to the system. I wasn’t expecting it to make such a fast impact,” said Victoria Lewis, a member of the YAC and the GHS track team. “I wasn’t expecting her to be able to do that. I saw her, and I saw me being an athlete. I thought it would be easy to hold it up, but all of a sudden my arm was like a bowling ball.”
A panel, including Richards, Bolcer, four YAC members, and Glastonbury Schools Health and Physical Education Coordinator Anne Marie Colebrook led an open discussion on teen tobacco use in Glastonbury.
Much of the discussion centered on the number of students who are using tobacco at GHS and the policing of its use.
YAC member Rob Carroll – a senior at GHS – said that he estimates that 60 percent of GHS athletes use tobacco.
Colebrook said there have been studies as recently as 2009 that would indicate that number is high, but added that it is very difficult to gauge.
“It’s hard for faculty and staff to really determine if a student is using,” she said. “Coaches are definitely aware that there are consequences, but the level of usage is hard to determine when those kinds of things are private.”
GHS Assistant Principal Mary Abrams said the first time a student is caught using or possessing tobacco on school grounds results in a three-day suspension.
In response to a question from the audience, Abrams said she doesn’t believe there are teachers who overlook tobacco use.
“We – most of your teachers – have grown up in a generation where we’ve watched people we love go through this,” Abrams said, “or we’ve been educated better. I think teachers are pretty committed to knowing the dangers of it.”
The purpose of the forum was to increase awareness about Snus, and all tobacco use, and it would seem it served its purpose.
“I thought it went very well,” Slutsky said of the event. “We had people from all different groups – we had principals, administrators, youth, parents and teachers. That was very important to us.”
“I was especially glad at the amount of kids that showed up,” Lewis said. “We usually get a room full of adults. This is good, because if any of those kids can tell three or four of their friends about this night, it will make an impact.”