Johnson Co. Middle School students recognized for anti-vaping work

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WTVQ) -A group of nine Johnson County Middle School students who call themselves the “Juul Breakers” have been named Healthy Kentucky Policy Champions for their efforts to curb youth vaping and e-cigarette use, both in their school and across Kentucky through education and a proposed statewide law.

Juul is the most popular brand of e-cigarettes on the market today, including among youth, and was a focal point of the students’ “juulsnotkuul” campaign.

E-cigarettes deliver high levels of the addictive chemical nicotine, which is harmful to developing brains and primes them for other addictions. E-cigarette aerosol also includes toxins and particles that are unsafe to inhale, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky CEO Ben Chandler surprised the students by presenting the awards at an event with parents, administrators and local and state officials in the school district’s board room in Paintsville Thursday morning.

The student awardees are: Alivia Hackworth, Chloe Dyer, Laken Salyers, Emily Farler, Constance Martin, Kaylee Gibbs, Hannah Piedad, Dakota Shepherd and Jonathan Cole Butcher. The students have been working all year to educate their peers, Kentucky school officials and legislators about the dangers of youth vaping, as well as the group’s proposed state law.

“Their solution was really quite elegant and yet radical,” said Pam Burton, who nominated the students for the awards. Their idea, Burton said, was to “make sure all students know the dangers associated with Juuls and vaping, make sure parents know when their children have been using Juuls or vaping at school, instruct teachers and faculty in how to identify when a child is using a Juul or vaping, develop remediation classes for those who use electronic cigarettes, and finally, establish a reporting mechanism whereby students may anonymously report the use and, most importantly, the selling of Juuls.”

“I am so proud of the behavior, grit, and determination exhibited by this group of kids,” said Johnson County Schools Superintendent Thom Cochran. “Even when the bill they believed in did not make it to the House floor to be voted on, this group of young people persevered. They took their message directly to superintendents throughout the state and have continued to push for policy change in dealing with the Juul and vaping epidemic. As their superintendent, I am extremely proud of what they have accomplished and pleased the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky is awarding them this honor.”

In addition to advocating for their own bill in the Kentucky legislature, the students were instrumental in helping the Foundation and other health advocates pass a statewide tobacco-free schools bill this year, Chandler said.

“I’m inspired by the level of homework this outstanding group of middle schoolers have given – and keep giving – to addressing what has become an epidemic of teen vaping in Kentucky and nationwide,” Chandler said. “As adults who are health advocates, we can talk all day long about this issue, but when lawmakers look into the eyes of a group of kids trying to address a problem they see every day in their school, it touches a chord. These kids’ testimony helped put us over the top in getting legislators’ support to make all Kentucky school property tobacco-free, and they’re raising awareness of the issue among parents, school officials and their peers, both in Johnson County and throughout the Commonwealth.”

As with many who advocate for changes in health policy, the youth had to face criticism of their efforts, often from other students.

“The testimonies these students gave are true testaments to their courage, but their resiliency . . . is what makes them truly remarkable,” Burton said in nominating the students. “Even with the verbal attacks and at times ridicule from their peers, these students have remained resolute in fighting this battle.”

Two of the students, Chloe Dyer and Alivia Hackworth, also appear in public service announcements created as part of the Foundation’s “I Just Didn’t Know” peer-education campaign about the dangers of youth e-cigarette use.

The Foundation’s Healthy Kentucky Policy Champion award honors individuals and organizations that are engaged in improving the health of their neighbors through policy change.

The Johnson County Middle School student group is now eligible for the Gil Friedell Policy Champion Award, which comes with a $5,000 grant from the Foundation to a Kentucky-based nonprofit of the winner’s choice. The winner of the Friedell award will be announced at the Foundation’s Howard L. Bost Memorial Health Policy Forum on September 23 in Lexington.

Nominations for Healthy Kentucky Policy Champion awards are accepted at any time. See details on the Foundation’s website.

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