Philippe Boucher's Rendez-vous with . . . Tamara Gibson

RenRendez-vous with . . . Tamara Gibson

Representative of SWAT (Students Working Against Tobacco)
Palm Coast, Florida , USA

By Philippe Boucher

Rendez-vous 102
Tuesday, June 5 , 2001

PB : Thank you Tamara for accepting our rendez-vous.
May I ask you to introduce yourself ?

Tamara Gibson : My name is Tamara Gibson. I am a 17-year-old senior at Flagler Palm Coast High School in Palm Coast, Florida. I have been active in SWAT (Students Working Against Tobacco) for over 3 years now. I have held different offices on the county level such as, chair, vice-chair, and secretary, and different offices on the state level, such as Region 3 Representative and Vice-Chair of Education and Training. Although I have lived in Flagler County for 12 years now, I am originally from Queens, NY.

Q1. Can you explain what SWAT is: when and how it was created, how it is organized, how many people are involved (volunteers and staff), how it is funded, what are/have been the main actions/campaigns?

T G : SWAT (Students Working Against Tobacco) is a youth driven organization who's main purpose is to reveal the "truth" about tobacco to young people in hopes that they will realize that tobacco is not the positive, "cool" substance to use that the media makes it out to be. With the support of the late Governor Lawton Chiles we officially united in 98 to begin the 1st youth led anti- tobacco initiative in Florida. Since then we have grown immensely. Beginning with under 5000 SWAT members the first year and blossoming to over 22,000 members state wide this year!

Although the SWAT "headquarters" is located in Tallahassee, Florida, the success of SWAT is based on the grassroots efforts of the individual counties. There are 67 counties in Florida, thus the decision making body for SWAT is comprised of 67 SWAT representatives. This group of dynamic young people meets quarterly to brainstorm state activities, share county successes, and gain additional information to share with their fellow county SWAT members and their local Tobacco Free Partnerships. Staff assisting SWAT is made up of individuals in every county and at the state office in Tallahassee. Tobacco Prevention Coordinators (TPCs) and SWAT Coordinators work at the county level to offer guidance and adult supervision for SWAT activities, but the crux of the program is based on the leadership, drive, determination and involvement of each SWAT member.

Throughout the year, local SWAT teams hold events in their counties that address the specific needs of their communities. In addition to this, statewide activities also occur where counties combine forces to create major advocacy events. Our last project, "Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is" targeted the Phillip Morris "Feel Good" ads. We collected over 35,000 signatures from youth and adults throughout Florida telling PM to back up their sweet talk with legitimate change. Yes, they spend nearly $115 million a year on community outreach, but they spend over $150 million a year advertising this so-called generosity. Basically, things don't match up with what they are proclaiming themselves to the general public; therefore, we brought state and national attention to this fact at a time when other tobacco-control groups and news services were also starting to realize PM's hypocrisy.

Q2. What about SWAT Without Borders? Who is involved, and what are the objectives?

T G : SWAT Without Borders is our current statewide activity, which launched in February and will culminate at our Teen Tobacco Summit in June. Since our program began in 98, statistics show that our "truth" message has received an astounding 98% recognition rate among youth in Florida, and now we are working to extend our message worldwide! In the US, Big Tobacco has said "we've changed". But the truth is they haven't changed. In most of the world they are still trying to hook young people on their products through manipulative marketing. The SWAT Without Borders campaign is making Florida youth aware of this. For the campaign, each county in Florida is communicating with youth in a partner country to do research and uncover facts about tobacco marketing in that country. The information gathered through this exchange will be shared with youth in Florida; and based on these facts; SWAT is creating Worldwide Tobacco Guidelines. At our culmination event in mid June at the Teen Tobacco Summit 4, we will publicly present these guidelines, as the world watches.

Q3. Smoking prevalence among youth has fallen in Florida. What about the rest of the population? Do you have an impact beyond youth?

T G : Smoking among youth in Florida has dropped 18% among high school students and 40% among middle school students. We certainly have an impact beyond youth. Many of the youth involved became interested in our cause because of personal reasons; perhaps a close relative or beloved family friend has an addiction to tobacco. Their involvement has opened the eyes of the adults they are associated with and impacted them in some way. There have been cases when the family member or friend have quit all together and realized the fatal consequences of their addiction. Even if the smoker gives a second thought to their bad habit, and that is a step. So through the involvement of youth throughout Florida, and moreover throughout the nation, we indeed have an impact beyond our generation.

Q4 . How do you relate with young smokers? Many say they would like to quit, try and fail. Are there any specific programs to help them?

T G : The success of SWAT comes from the youth to youth approach we take. Oftentimes when an adult tells a young person not to smoke because of the effects of tobacco, they just ignore it. We know that tobacco use is a huge threat to one's health, but we don't preach the health message. We preach the "truth." The truth is that tobacco executives are doing everything in their power to hook my generation as early as possible to replace the adult smokers who are dying out at a rapid pace, the truth is that they are marketing to nave youth who don't realize the crucial realization of the injustice being done to them. That is why I am so passionate about the cause. Its not fair to my generation, we have the right to know the truth. It is up to that youth to make an educated decision from that point. There are tobacco cessation classes (NOT - Not On Tobacco -in particular) and other means of assistance through DHAT that are available to the smoker nationwide who is willing to make a change.

Q5. What's next? Is SWAT a sustainable movement? Are new leaders emerging to replace the ones who are getting too old? When are you getting too old for SWAT? Is the Florida legislature going to keep funding your efforts on the same level? (There were fears expressed about budget cuts)

T G : SWAT is a group that will need to remain active until MAJOR changes are made within the tobacco companies. Why sell a product that is killing billions? My personal feelings are to eliminate its production totally. That is something that will take lots of time. So we will need youth to continue fighting for our goals and keeping the program alive. The first set of students involved with the program from the beginning will be graduating in 2002, so new ideas, minds, and changes will continue to be made throughout the years, but our mission remains the same. Truth.

Q6. Is there anything else you would like to add?

T G : Yes. I encourage students, parents, educators, business leaders, and the entire community to get involved with tobacco education and prevention. If we all work together as a united group there are truly no limits. We have had outstanding support thus far in Florida; however, we need that same support nationwide. We can make a difference, but we need help.

I applaud the young people who have dedicated their time to the program. I hope that the ones who have graduated continue on with the college initiative, STRIKE.

I will end with a quote by former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton:

"Nothing is more important to our shared future than the well-being of children. For children are at our core - not only as vulnerable beings in need of love and care but as a moral touchstone amidst the complexity and contentiousness of modern life..." PB: Thank you Tamara for taking the time to be with us today.

This interview was made possible with the help of Liberty Taylor. Thank you Liberty! Liberty also wanted to add that SWAT does have a toll-free number that youth and adults can call to get more information. It is 1-877-GEN-SWAT this is a toll-free number within the state of Florida, and as of July 1, 2001, it will be a toll-free number for anyone calling outside the state as well. As of June 15 there will be a new website but the url is not yet available. We'll share it with you as soon as we have it.

Rendez-vous is supported by a contract from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
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