Walden Grove High School student Illiana Islas, 16, was among 10 Arizona teens nationally recognized for their anti-tobacco advocacy.
Islas and 132 others from 33 states were named National Youth and Young Adult Ambassadors by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
The young ambassadors work with Tobacco-Free Kids to advocate for federal, state and local policies targeting youth tobacco use.
Islas said she's excited to return to school for her junior year after a long break from social norms. She found that she and her peers went through a journey of discovery and a new sense of peace for their well-being.
At Walden Grove, she is active in different clubs like the Walden Student Wellness Advocacy Team (SWAT), Link and Breakfast at Lunch club. She participated in school plays as well.
After high school, Islas hopes to go to college in Oregon and get away from the heat. She said she is glad to move closer to the next big thing in life beyond Sahuarita.
How did you first get involved in the Walden Student Wellness Advocacy Team, and what made you want to take on tobacco use?
Ever since middle school, I had been in the SWAT program at Anza Trail. Everything really just started to fall into place, from summer trips to the Arizona Grand Resort and Hotel to being on radio stations, I have truly had such good experiences in this program.
Obviously, after middle school, I wanted to be involved still. So I signed up for Walden's program and everything went forward from there.
What inspired me to take on tobacco use was the rise of vape product usage within my community and peers. I saw relationships between people start to deteriorate because they couldn't be around someone who's constant need was nicotine.
What trends have you noticed among your Sahuarita peers and friends regarding tobacco and nicotine use?
I have noticed a definite trend amongst my peers who use flavored vape products with friends. I think a lot of people here don't have much to do, so they take on new hobbies to distract themselves. And sadly, smoking is one of them.
Smoking and vaping is truly a youth epidemic. While it may not seem like a big trend from the outside looking in, it is a major addiction where some people don't know who to confide in. They don't want to disappoint their parents by telling them, and they don't want to tell their friends, who won't help them quit because they also have an addiction and do not want to own up to it.
How prevalent are tobacco and nicotine usages among Sahuarita youth?
Among the youth in Sahuarita, many people at school have taken a liking to smoking because it is just another thing to pass the time.
It is definitely a common new way to relate to someone and get somewhat closer to them. A lot of people I know have met their closest friends through vape product usage.
It's just a very common thing nowadays, but it's not considered being lame or anything if you don't do it. It's more of an, "Alright, that's cool, as long as we don't do any harm to each other, we are good," interaction.
Have you noticed any difference in how your peers respond to tobacco education from you rather than teachers or outside advocates?
I think peer to peer education is crucial to spread information, specifically in this instance, with smoking and vaping. A lot of people listen to their friends and youth around them.
For me, personally, I can talk to someone about their habits with nicotine and tobacco. And I can really help them realize what can be done to quit and have it be personal to them in their journey.
Overall, I think more youth will listen to others who have had the same experiences dealing with addiction. And their friends can play a very crucial role in determining how everything follows through.
Is there anything tobacco-related you found unique to Sahuarita youth, good or bad?
Here in Sahuarita, what is really prevalent is that sometimes people just do it once in a while when they hang out with friends or go to parties but will never vape alone. So they don't get addicted.
It almost acts as a way to gain new friends and meet new people to ask if they have a vape or if they want to smoke with them.
It is definitely a new way of making friends, which is problematic because these things are forming relationships and act as a baseline of what they could do if they hang out.
Did you follow Pima County's and the City of Tucson's push to approve Tobacco 21 laws last year? How do you think they did during the process?
Last summer, I went with Pima's health department to talk to the City Council. It was a really good experience to see how much convincing was required to shift attention to how bad vaping and smoking are amongst my peers.
I remember having to really push for their attention in the meeting and sharing daily experiences on what goes on at school with youth.
I think the process went well considering how much money tobacco industries make and how that affects the council's positions on Tobacco 21 laws.
This ordinance is really the first step in preventing youth smokers and a whole generation of non-smokers, which is a goal to keep in mind when creating all of these efforts.
What more would you like to see done to curb youth tobacco use?
I think all flavored products should be banned. And with tobacco 21 efforts, the trend of vaping would dramatically decrease because obtaining these vapes and cigarettes would be harder, discouraging youth from buying these products.
More people at school should get to know ways to quit and solutions to help them live a longer, healthier life. That information should also be publicly announced and not in pamphlets.
Using your voice in-person can really help someone be encouraged to do something a lot more.
What attitudes about tobacco and e-cigarette use do you find most common among your peers in Sahuarita?
My generation as a whole has mostly stopped the regular-cigarette use trend. That said, tobacco use with vapes has continued to rise, especially with the market of flavored products that draw in youth.
When Juul pod flavors were banned, everyone was looking for the next flavored product. And that's Puff Bars, which are very similar to Juul products but have bright colors and new flavors, which people want in the end.
But most importantly, attitudes toward conventional cigarettes are very negative. It has a stigma that vapes don't have in the sense that cigarettes are old and gross and cause so many problems in the future that haven't been explored by older generations with vaping.