HOUSTON – To help train youth to become educators and advocates for tobacco policy change, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health in El Paso is partnering with El Paso Independent School District high schools to create an innovative new program.
As part of its A Smoke Free Paso del Norte initiative, the Paso del Norte Health Foundation awarded UTHealth School of Public Health nearly $150,000 to implement Youth Advocating for Policy EXecution (APEX). The unique program will teach youth how to advocate for policy changes that will reduce tobacco use among adults, prevent tobacco use among youth and reduce exposure to secondhand smoke.
The program, which begins in August, will start at three schools: Bowie High School, Chapin High School and Austin High School. The program may be expanded to include more schools in the future.
“We’re helping to train the next generation of policy advocates and helping foster long-term leadership and career development,” said Louis Brown, Ph.D., the program’s leader and assistant professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health in El Paso. “Most policy change initiatives are adult-driven and don’t involve youth. Youth APEX is not the standard paradigm. Instead, this is a paradigm shift.”
The program will operate as an after-school club at each school, allowing students to participate in five different policy and environmental initiatives throughout the school year. A campus coordinator at each school will recruit students and collaborate with UTHealth staff in trainings, as well as in the implementation of tobacco control activities.
The first activity will be retailer compliance checks, which will focus on enforcing the policies that are already in place to reduce the purchase of tobacco products by individuals under the age of 18. The compliance checks will be conducted in collaboration with the El Paso Department of Public Health and Aliviane, Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides behavioral health, treatment and recovery services.
For the next project, students will work on promoting the adoption of smoke-free apartment complexes.
“The students will survey residents about their views on smoke-free housing,” said Brown. “Our plan is to collect the data and share it with property owners to help them consider the pros and cons of smoke-free housing.”
Other activities in the program will include a social media campaign and collective action aimed at encouraging pharmacies to stop selling tobacco.
In the final phase of the program, students will write letters to Texas state senators and representatives advocating to raise the minimum age required to purchase tobacco products to 21.
“We often see youth as part of the problem instead of the solution. They are often underestimated because people don’t see the possibilities,” Brown said. “This is an important public health issue and youth have a powerful voice that is uniquely capable of attracting media attention, garnering sympathy and swaying public opinion.”