REAL helps island teens rally against tobacco ills
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
"It started with a bunch of teens who were all passionate about getting the lies and manipulation that tobacco companies use out into the open and telling our peers and the community about it," said charter member Teresa Vitro, 18.
REAL was established two years ago to rally Hawai'i youth against youth-directed tobacco marketing. It's patterned after Mainland groups who use a blunt, youth-oriented approach, like Truth and Target Market. (Truth, for example, places ads in magazines with stickers that can be applied to teen fingernails, stating, "Tobacco smoke contains ammonia.")
The organization relies on its 300 youth members to initiate and execute anti-tobacco activities. It is coordinated through the University of Hawai'i's Cancer Research Center and financed by the Master Tobacco Settlement by way of the Hawaii Community Foundation.
Vitro first learned of the project through a family friend at the American Lung Association. An experienced volunteer, she said REAL is unique in its approach.
"I've worked with a lot of organizations that were led by adults, and basically they were all just adults telling you what to do," Vitro said. "With REAL, you really have a voice that is heard by adults and youth and that's what moves the movement."
Program director Karen Glanz said the group was modeled after similar programs on the Mainland but imprinted with its members' unique values and perspectives.
"We have a general framework that we need to follow to get the funding, but the shape and the details of what we are doing have come from the youth, and they've really worked hard," Glanz said.
With training in key areas such as media relations, advocacy and grant-writing provided by community volunteers, REAL members have been active in street marketing, educational events and other promotions across the state.
To announce its coming out, REAL staged a party and news conference at World Cafe two weekends ago. The event was lightly attended but did the job in communicating the group's mission.
Members at the party reflected the program's scope. They came from large and small communities on almost every island. Some were honor roll students, others just had honorable intentions. All were drawn by a sense of urgency.
"My auntie smoked, and she passed away from lung cancer," said Emma Landgraf, 15, a student at Baldwin High School. "That was really devastating, and I wanted to do something to make a difference for my other family members."
Allen Bartolome, 18, a recent graduate of Pahoa High School, said his whole household smokes.
"I wanted to be an individual and stand out," he said. "Members of my family have died from tobacco-related illnesses, and I don't want to be one of them. Smokers are dying today, and Big Tobacco needs fresh meat for tomorrow."
The group received $150,000 in its start-up year from the American Legacy Foundation and the tobacco settlement. This year, settlement money will account for all $500,000 of REAL's operating budget.
While much of the group's work has been low key so far, REAL has managed to make a real impact in the community.
Recently, the group awarded $80,000 to 11 community groups to raise awareness of the dangers of tobacco. The grants stipulate that the recipient organizations must allow for youth representation in their decision-making processes.