SBU Kicks Butts: A Breath of Fresh Air for Reform
Three Stony Brook University student groups teamed up for the fourth annual SBU Kicks Butts event to raise awareness about Green Tobacco Sickness — a type of poisoning that occurs when nicotine from the surface of wet tobacco plants is absorbed into the skin — and how support of the tobacco industry is creating specific health risks.
This year’s event, which was supported by the Tobacco Action Coalition of Long Island and the American Lung Association of the Northeast, mobilized more than 80 members of three student groups: SHAC (Student Health Advisory Committee), Chill (an internship offered by the Center for Prevention and Outreach through the Health and Wellness Living Learning Center) and CHOICE (Choosing Healthy Options in the College Environment).
“People who use tobacco products just don’t have an awareness of the health risks they support when they buy those products,” said Gardner Prosper, a SHAC student leader.
The clubs distributed literature, including information on how to get nicotine replacement patches and gum on campus through Student Health Services.
In just five days, the three groups collected more than 1,000 signatures — 350 of which were on banners containing “Kicks Butts” boots to symbolize the act of kicking the habit — in a petition. SHAC will share the signatures with Stony Brook University administration and representatives from the State of New York’s (SUNY) Tobacco-Free initiative at the end of the semester. The event was tweeted to a national Kick Butts site where 12,000 tweets and retweets were received within the first hour alone.
SBU Kicks Butts has gained momentum since its inception in 2010 when six SHAC students advocated for education and policy changes to address health concerns linked to the cancer risk affiliated with secondhand and thirdhand smoke (smoke that remains after a cigarette has been extinguished).
The students are right in step with the times — on March 18, the Suffolk County Legislature passed the Tobacco 21 law, which raised the legal age for buying tobacco products from 18 to 21, winning with just one vote.
This year’s event brought to light the plight of child laborers who pick tobacco in the southeastern African nation of Malawi. In “Messi’s Story,” a letter found online and shared with students for educational purposes by the Center for Prevention and Outreach Health Education Office, nine-year-old Messi writes that she has been harvesting tobacco since she was five years old, instead of attending school. She explains that she does not wear protective clothing and that her skin absorbs 54 mg of nicotine — the equivalent of smoking 50 cigarettes — every day from the wet tobacco leaves she harvests. This exposure causes symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, nausea and respiratory and cardiac issues.
Seasonal or migrant farmworkers in the United States and other tobacco-producing countries are being similarly affected. Green Tobacco Sickness can be avoided or mitigated by harvesting only dry tobacco, wearing protective clothing, or removing garments exposed to wet tobacco leaves and washing skin in warm, soapy water.
Psychology major Dina Tatiana Ramirez, Queens, New York, is a member of SHAC and a peer educator in CHOICE who first learned about Green Tobacco Sickness during the Tobacco-Free SUNY conference last year.
“I have never been a tobacco smoker but my grandfather was an avid smoker all of his life and died of pulmonary disease in 1998,” she said. “That encouraged me to never allow myself to become addicted to cigarettes and inspired me to help spread the message to others.”
Biology major Noemie Long, Rochester, New York, a Chill Peer Educator and member of SHAC, the Pre-Veterinary Society and SBU Cat Network, said one reason why she became involved is because she is an animal enthusiast.
“I want to spread awareness of the effects of secondhand and thirdhand smoke on the health of pets,” she said.
Just as important, she said, the event demonstrated that Stony Brook cares about the health of its students and the children who are harvesting tobacco. “The boots and signatures show that students support our efforts and want to help others make positive life choices,” she said.
Video produced by SBU-TV. Directed by Andrew DesGaines and Angelo Lambroschino
But not everybody has embraced the movement. “One student asked me why I was trying to ‘force the campus to be tobacco free’ when I don’t smoke myself,” said Ramirez. “I explained that it’s not about forcing anyone to do anything — this project is about giving people the choice to lead healthier lives and to help others impacted by the demand for tobacco products. But another student told me she was really happy about the possibility of a tobacco-free campus because she suffers from asthma and allergy problems that worsen with exposure to smoke.”
She added that there are many resources available for students on and off campus. “I advised them to contact the Health Education Office with the Center for Prevention and Outreach (CPO) and sign up for a student-focused tobacco cessation program (coupled with the medical support and nicotine replacement therapy product), provided at no cost to students through the Student Health Service.
Kathleen Valerio, CPO health educator, Chill and CHOICE Program Coordinator and SHAC advisor, said the student groups clearly incorporated best practices supporting public health and experiential learning techniques into their outreach efforts.
“They took action to heighten awareness of a global issue using what they learned in the classroom to create positive change and improve health outcomes,” she said.
SHAC is composed of students from more than 100 recognized groups, and membership is open to all. For more information on SHAC, visit studentaffairs.stonybrook.edu/shs/about/shac.shtml
—By Glenn Jochum; photos by John Griffin