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SWAT > News and Events > Teens Chase Funds, Law to Fight Smoking

Mark Pino
July 4, 2004

Ah, the giddy glory days of the war against Big Tobacco.

It seems like only yesterday, but it has been six years since Florida was at the vanguard of the battle. After a landmark $13 billion settlement that was one of the legacies of the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, Students Working Against Tobacco -- or SWAT -- was born.

The program received millions in its early years and was noted for clever campaigns and actions to show youngsters that tobacco was dangerous. By all accounts the guerrilla brawl was successful.

Perhaps too successful. Funding started decreasing when Republicans took over in Tallahassee. For the second year running, state legislators have given the program $1 million. This year there are more strings attached, such as limits on money for those effective, catchy anti-tobacco campaigns, local SWAT members say.

The belt-tightening during the budget process even brought a quick rebuke from Gov. Jeb Bush, who had sought $16 million. (And even that was considerably less than funding during the "good" years.) No deal.

Worse: SWAT faces privatization. It could be SWAT's death sentence.

Osceola County SWAT members remain committed. They met last week in the bowels of the Health Department building to map out strategies for the coming year. Grants, fund-raisers and of course, advocacy, are on the list.

Here's a great example of our youth in action. Members are committed. Brandon Nelson is a senior at Gateway High. He's been involved in SWAT since the sixth grade. He seems like a bright guy who's learning how the system works.

Sasha Willey is a seventh-grader at Parkway Middle. She got involved to become articulate and self-confident. Hearing her speak, I'd say mission accomplished.

Tanya Castin and Vanessa Jean-Pierre are from Poinciana, which had the largest membership of any school club during the recent school year. Sharon Herskowitz will be a freshman at Gateway when school starts and is SWAT chairperson. All seem passionate at a time of the year when most kids are working summer jobs or just hanging out.

Members will make a pitch to county commissioners later this year. SWAT wants the county to enact an ordinance to get tobacco products out of the view of minors.

A similar effort was turned away in 2001 when county officials said enforcement of such a law was better left to the state. But SWAT members have collected more than 1,000 signatures and point to the fact 59 counties have such ordinances in place.

The ordinance wouldn't affect tobacco sales. It's already illegal to sell tobacco products to minors, yet SWAT members say the proposal would cut underage tobacco use by reducing product awareness. Tobacco companies find a way to target youths, they say. Someone notes smokeless tobacco samples were given away during the recent Xtreme Auto Xpo at Osceola Heritage Park, a county facility.

Big Tobacco needs new users. The only way to decrease tobacco use is to counter recruitment efforts.

It's war. Supporting SWAT cuts down on the casualties. Sadly, after years on the offensive, SWAT is fighting for its life. I'm rooting for survival and revival.