April 14, 2022

Community, Action, Service & Advocacy Leads Youth Quest to Educate Decision-Makers on Tobacco Health Hazards

Jason Baker, Public Health Advocate, Community Action, Service & Advocacy   


On March 14, youth leaders from Students Together Against Alcohol ‘n Drugs (STAAND) gathered in Sacramento with peers from throughout California for Youth Quest 2022. This annual event offers youth coalitions the opportunity to inform and educate state decision makers on how tobacco impacts young people, their communities, and the environment. STAAND is the community-based leadership development internship program of Community Action, Service & Advocacy, a substance abuse prevention organization based in La Mesa. STAAND is comprised of volunteers from throughout East County. 

Youth Quest showcases local youth coalition activities aimed at creating healthier, tobacco-free communities. Each year, the California Youth Advocacy Network’s Board of Directors selects a tobacco-related theme that is particularly important to youth. This year’s theme, Tobacco Preys, Wildfires Blaze, Earth Pays, focused on how growth, production, and use of commercial tobacco contributes to environmental destruction.  

Each year, approximately 600 million trees are cut down to grow tobacco. Trees are then burned and used as fuel to heat and dry tobacco leaves for use in combustible products. The growing and curing of tobacco is a leading contributor to global deforestation.  

Tobacco products are responsible for creating enormous amounts of dangerous and toxic waste that contaminates soil and waterways. Littered cigarette butts, vaping devices and their component parts are the most collected items in urban and beach cleanups worldwide. In California, cigarette butts make up 37 percent of total litter collected, and public agencies spend an excess of $41 million annually on litter cleanup. In recent years, the industry has introduced a new form of tobacco – disposable vaping devices. These devices, which are popular among teens, are single-use plastic and disposal of these products contaminates soil and waterways. Littering of cigarette butts has been directly connected to wildfires, which continue to plague our state.  

STAAND youth attended educational sessions, marched to the State Capitol, and held a rally and press conference on the West Steps before meeting with a local Assemblymember representing a  San Diego County Assembly District.  

Nadeen Youhanan, a STAAND member and senior at El Cajon Valley High School said the most important message the group shared with the Assemblymember was that for change to occur, youth need to have a say and for their voices to be heard.  

 “That is why the CYAN (California Youth Advocacy Network) Youth Quest is such an important event as it allows youth to do so within the State Capitol,” Youhanan said. “We spoke to the Assemblymember regarding the importance of youth representation and, more specifically, we shared our own opinion on Big Tobacco’s ploy. Our goal was to educate and raise awareness about how dangerous Big Tobacco is to society and to our environment by giving insight to projects we have done as part of STAAND.” 

The group talked about issues currently affecting San Diego County in terms of tobacco and other drugs and shared their own experiences dealing with the rampant tobacco advertisements aimed at youth and how this has affected their education. Youhanan said she was surprised that the meeting with the Assemblymember expanded from the topic of Big Tobacco toward other substance abuse issues like fentanyl, opioids, and marijuana. 

“When asked why we should care about Big Tobacco when issues like fentanyl are having more dire consequences, I had to take some time to consider my answer. If we truly want to tackle issues like fentanyl, we also must deal with Big Tobacco and how it is impacting our planet,” she said. “By working our way up the ladder and making these changes, they start to pile up and we see a more connected and thriving community.” 

Youhanan, who was also a former Live Well San Diego Youth Sector Leader,  called Youth Quest a meaningful experience that inspired her to continue to work on important social change issues as she begins her college career.   

“I plan to use what I learned from my experience here to continue my activism journey regarding the issues in my community that I care about--by educating our representatives, bringing awareness to our community, and, most importantly, voting for the individuals who care about our cause.” 

Founded in 1997, the California Youth Advocacy Network provides meaningful opportunities for youth leadership and involvement in California’s revolutionary tobacco control program. Their mission is to change the tobacco use culture in California high schools, colleges and universities, military installations, and other youth and young adult communities by providing knowledge, skills, and tools to create local change for healthier communities.