By BARBARA S. ROTHSCHILD
Teenagers have long been known to rebel, but a group of Cherry Hill High School West teens are doing it in a different way - one in which their parents are likely taking great pride.
Students at West recently formed a chapter of REBEL - Reaching Everyone By Exposing Lies. The statewide youth-led movement, established two years ago, has a mission to reach, educate and empower New Jersey's young people to make healthy lifestyle decisions and support nonsmoking.
Organized through the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services and funded with money from the master settlement agreement between tobacco companies and 46 states, REBEL is one component of New Jersey's $30 million Comprehensive Tobacco Control Program. It focuses on getting youth to wise up on how tobacco companies use advertising to lure them, spending $157 million in one year alone in New Jersey just for that purpose.
"This is about kids being active consumers rather than passive consumers, and not buying into the lies tobacco companies use to hook young people," said adviser Barbara Rakoczy, student assistance counselor at West.
West junior Melissa Mignona, 17, is spearheading West's effort.
"I love to help people. A lot of my friends started to smoke, and it was just weird being around them. We kind of went our different ways," Mignona said.
At Mignona's urging, about 10 other teens have jumped on the REBEL bandwagon so far.
"I can try to get my friends who smoke off of it, and get them in this club," said freshman Brian Reinert, 15.
Stephanie Badtorff, a 16-year-old junior, also had a personal reason to get involved in REBEL.
"I see my dad and aunt complaining about how they want to quit smoking and just can't. I want to stop kids before they get in that position," Badtorff said.
The chapter meets several times a month and also participates in regional and statewide events, including everything from bowling get-togethers to summits where teens can brainstorm and strategize together.
At West, the group participated in a pumpkin decorating activity in October mainly to raise awareness of its mission, and then launched its first major event during the Great American Smokeout on Nov. 21.
REBEL chapter members distributed petitions asking Gov. James E. McGreevey and state legislators to better regulate the tobacco industry and not be influenced by large political donations from companies that manufacture cigarettes.
They passed the petitions around during lunch periods and in classrooms, garnering at least 1,000 signatures from a student body of about 1,700.
"I think it's wrong that the tobacco industry does not have to pay for hooking kids on tobacco. It has political weight when all it's doing is killing people," said Samantha Boden, a 16-year-old junior, as she signed the petition.
REBEL members handed out fuzzy green pompom critters labeled "Tobacco is Whacko" as well as "Addicted to oxygen for a smoke-free world" stickers to petition signers.
They also cited statistics showing that more than 80 percent of existing adult smokers became addicted before age 18 and that if current trends continue, 135,000 New Jersey teens will eventually die of a tobacco-related disease.
"I think it's terrible how so many kids today think it's OK to do drugs to free themselves of stress. There are natural ways to relieve stress," said junior Colleen Voiles, 17, as she signed the petition.
Bianca Skvirsky, a 16-year-old junior, said she has stopped three people from smoking.
"Drugs and smoking are toxins to the body. I stopped my father, who had smoked since he was 17 and in the Army. I stopped a friend of mine over the Internet, and there was a boy who liked me. He stopped for me," Skvirsky said.
REBEL members may mail the signed petitions to Trenton or may take a road trip and deliver them in person, Mignona said.
For more information on REBEL, check out its Web site, www.njrebel.com.
Smoking and youth
Reach Barbara S. Rothschild at (856) 486-2416 or email@example.com