The statistics are staggering: Data shows that more than 80% of kids who have used tobacco started with a flavored product. And in Los Angeles alone, more than one third of high school students have tried e-cigarettes, which are available in candy-sweet flavors like watermelon, lemonade, and cool mint.
United Parents and Students (UPAS) is working to change that. Originally an initiative of Green Dot Public Schools, UPAS is now an independent nonprofit organization that works with Los Angeles communities to support them in advocating for and creating progressive change.
“We work with students to see what’s going on in their communities and their neighborhoods that they want to change,” says Breanna Jordan, UPAS youth organizing coordinator. “In 2019, we found that drug and alcohol use, in general, was an issue of concern for them, and particularly e-cigarettes and vaping.”
In 2019, students in UPAS’s Young Organizers Institute – which trains high school students to use community organizing skills to address social justice issues – drove the group’s work with L.A. Families Fighting Flavored Tobacco, a coalition of families, youth, public health officials, and community advocates working to ban the sale of all flavored tobacco products.
UPAS was a major part of the 2019 efforts to pass a ban on the sale of flavored tobacco products in unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County. At that time, more than 400 students, parents, and community members signed a petition in support of the ban, and nearly 250 UPAS student activists attended the meeting where the ban was passed.
Now, UPAS brought that same advocacy to the Los Angeles City Council as it prepared to vote on a similar ban to end the sale of flavored tobacco products. The motion passed with a 14-0 vote.“History has shown us clearly what harmful effects menthol cigarettes have had, particularly on the African American community,” Ridley-Thomas told the Los Angeles Times. “It is up to us to prevent the repetition of such racial injustices and health inequities.”The city will join hundreds of others across the country that have done the same – and, crucially, set the tone for others to follow their lead.
“We know Black and Brown youth are the primary target of marketing and advertising by tobacco companies who try to pass off flavored tobacco products as safe and fun to use,” Jordan says, “Many of our LA-area students have had easy access to these products as early as fifth grade, and we’ve seen increased use in our schools and communities.
Before the 2019 vote, UPAS activists went before the LA County Board of Supervisors to share personal testimonies about how flavored tobacco has impacted them – and their stories drove real change. As they spoke, pro-tobacco lobbyists openly heckled and insulted the students, even going so far as to boo them. Still, the board voted unanimously to pass the county ban, ultimately siding with students’ health and safety.
For students like Katherine Garcia Campos, a rising senior who has been a part of UPAS since the 2019 campaign, those personal testimonies are the result of everyday lived experiences in LA communities. The effort to ban flavored tobacco is important to her on a deeply personal level.
“I live in a low-income community where it is extremely easy to access these flavored products, and although people are aware of the consequences and their effects, they continue to consume them,” Garcia Campos says. “I hope the City of LA passes this ban on flavored tobacco so that people, especially adolescents, stop consuming these harmful products.”
She and her peers have worked with UPAS, the American Heart Association, and Breathe LA to bring health professionals into classrooms to speak frankly to students about the dangers of flavored tobacco use. Some students have even traveled to Philadelphia to advocate around this issue on a national level.
As of June 2021, more than 100 localities across California have passed restrictions or bans on the sale of flavored tobacco products. As the trend continues, UPAS leaders hope the City of LA will feel pressure to do the same.
“This advocacy campaign has taught me to continuously fight for change in my community,” Garcia Campos says. “The process has taken time. and it takes a lot of commitment to constantly fight for what is right, but eventually, hard work pays off.”