GONZALES — Jazmine Johnson, 11, became angry when she saw pack after pack of cigarettes for sale at various stores across Ascension Parish.
Not just because prolonged cigarette use can lead to cancer but because many of the cigarettes were intentionally shelved only 36 inches off the ground and near candy — the perfect location for children to see and admire.
“They try to kill the children with cigarettes,” Johnson said, referring to cigarette manufacturers’ marketing techniques designed to hook people on smoking while they’re young.
Johnson is one of eight students ranging in age from 11-17 who took part in the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living’s “Defy” program, created to encourage young people to get involved with tobacco control and prevention.
“It’s a need in our community because people need to know about the dangers of smoking, especially with the youth,” said Kisha Ricks, program director with Face to Face Enrichment Center in Gonzales.
The enrichment center, a nonprofit group offering community health services, education and mentoring programs, received an $18,000 grant from the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living to help students identify tobacco marketing.
The need for tobacco control and prevention is real, according to Ricks.
Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States and 6,500 adults in Louisiana die each year from smoking, according to recent statistics from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
As part of the “Defy” program, the students visited more than 70 convenience stores, gas stations, grocery stores and drug stores in Ascension Parish over a six-month period, Ricks said.
This point-of-sale project allowed the students to assess how tobacco products are marketed to children, Ricks said.
“They’re trying to see how many stores in Ascension Parish have stuff placed where children can see it,” Ricks said.
Working in groups, the students input the data they record at stores into a tablet, and once completed, send the data to the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living, Ricks said.
The students usually are shocked when they realize how many tobacco products are marketed toward people their age, Ricks said.
The Defy team’s research showed that 68 percent of stores had tobacco advertisements presented at children’s eye level while 66 percent of stores had advertisements promoting special offers designed to make tobacco seem like a good deal.
The team’s research concluded that while cigarettes remain the most popular kind of tobacco product, the majority of tobacco-selling stores in Ascension Parish sell small cigars, or cigarillos, which are often flavored to appeal to children and teens.
And 97 percent of stores placed tobacco products near candy, toys, at the cash register or at children’s eye level, according to the team’s findings.
A recent push to sell e-cigarettes has surprised Ricks, who said she sees more advertising for the product near the entrances of dollar value stores and national drug store chains compared with just 18 months ago.
“All of a sudden now, when we get in, wow, they’re selling e-cigarettes,” Ricks said.
E-cigarettes come in a variety of flavors and are designed to entice young people, Ricks said.
They are unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration but are still harmful because e-cigarette cartridges can contain cancer-causing chemicals, including nicotine, according to federal health statistics.
As part of the grant, the team was required to hold a town hall meeting and speak to elected officials about their work.
The team presented its findings to the Gonzales City Council on June 8.
In a phone interview, Mayor Barney Arceneaux said he was impressed with the work the team had performed.
“For me, it’s my belief these young people are taking a stand,” Arceneaux said. “I think it’s wonderful these young people want to do it.”