For Madeline Pitre, the fight against tobacco use is deeply personal.
In 2016, the 16-year-old lost her grandmother to the lung-disease emphysema, which she’d acquired from a lifetime of smoking.
“This event greatly impacted me, as I am sure that she would have been with my family longer if not for her continued cigarette use,” Pitre says. “When coupled with the rise of vaping at my school, I felt that I had to take action.”
The Biloxi High School student turned her passion into advocacy. In 2018, she applied and was accepted to the youth advisory board for GenerationFREE — a youth-led tobacco prevention program administered through the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi.
“Though my time in this group only lasted one year due to a lack of funding, I learned a lot about how to work to combat tobacco use and educate both teenagers and adults about the dangers of smoking and vaping,” Pitre says. “I also was able to have contact with policymakers statewide due to our youth summits and education retreats, which introduced me to ways that political initiatives can impact tobacco use in communities.”
She applied what she learned and founded an anti-tobacco GenFREE club that has been incorporated into Biloxi High School’s Campus Security Council. As president, she coordinates events for Red Ribbon Week, a national drug-use prevention campaign, and she has planned annual activities for Take Down Tobacco’s National Day of Action, otherwise known as Kick Butts Day.
Pitre also joined Harrison County’s Mississippi Tobacco-Free Coalition, sponsored by the American Lung Association, in 2018 as a youth advocate, and she’s a volunteer for Schools Against Vaping. In her school district, she’s presented to school nurses to help them recognize the signs of cigarette and vape use among students, and a multimedia PowerPoint presentation she created about vaping has been distributed at Biloxi Upper Elementary and Biloxi High. She intends to present it in-person during health classes at Biloxi Junior High.
Smoking was once accepted as a “fact of life” for teens, Pitre says, but advocacy and awareness efforts are reducing smoking rates among youth and the general population.
“I believe my work has helped continue the downward trend,” she adds, “and hopefully, I and other anti-vape advocates will also begin to see a reduction in vaping due to our education efforts.”
Vaping continues to be a problem, with e-cigarette use more than doubling among teens in recent years. Pitre wants her peers to know that when they vape, they are not inhaling harmless water vapor. In fact, a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 99 percent of e-cigarettes contained some amount of nicotine, and the aerosol that vapers inhale may contain many toxic chemicals that cause permanent lung damage.
“It’s also important that teens know that many of these brands are owned by the same companies that make traditional tobacco products like cigarettes,” Pitre says. “Vaping is simply their newest invention to replace a consumer base that keeps dying due to the health issues their product causes.”
For the remainder of her high school career and beyond, Pitre says she will stay committed to spreading the anti-tobacco message. She recently applied to be a youth advisor for a national anti-tobacco group so she can expand her advocacy efforts. At whatever college she attends, she plans to get involved with the anti-tobacco groups there or form her own if one does not exist.
As Pitre is well aware, the stakes couldn’t be higher. One in three smokers will die prematurely from a smoking-related illness, and the rest often have permanent, life-affecting complications. Her long-term goal is to become a medical research scientist and develop new ways to treat diseases, such as smoking-related cancers.
“I am really thankful for the opportunities I’ve had to spread this message, and the knowledge I have gained thus far has enabled me to be an effective anti-tobacco advocate … ,” she says. “Of course, I also recognize that my work is nowhere near done.”