On Feb. 19 I will be going to the Indiana Statehouse to join hundreds of other youth and adult advocates calling for an increase in the state cigarette tax to reduce tobacco use and save lives. This debate is personal to me.
Nearly three years ago, my grandma, Patricia Miller, passed away from tobacco-related illness. She was a longtime smoker, faithful to her Kool 100’s. Longs only, or else she couldn’t come back to it later. She was so influential in my life. She was the woman who taught me to read, write, sing and live your life as if tomorrow isn’t promised. But smoking robbed her of her tomorrows.
I remember sitting up with her one night near the end of her life rubbing circles in her back as she gasped for air waiting for the ambulance. I remember not being able to see her in the hospital but reading her one last original poem over the phone. Tomorrow is never promised, and she knew that the whole way through. She also had wished she would have quit smoking sooner, but in that moment, it was too late.
Just the week before her passing, I had told her how I was so sure she’d be alive to see me walk across the stage to get my high school diploma, start college and eventually marry the love of my life. I shouldn’t have to feel like I shouldn’t have spoken too soon.
It isn’t just my grandma who has smoked. Everyone around me in my life has smoked, so as a kid I thought it was totally OK. Little did I know how much damage those countless cigarettes would do to those I love and to me as someone who is around secondhand smoke.
My story is unique, but sadly, it is also common in Indiana. Our smoking rate in Indiana ranks sixth worst out of the 50 states and 1 in 5 Hoosier adults smoke. Alarmingly to me, as a sophomore/junior at Edison Jr./Sr. High School, 3,100 youth become daily smokers each year. My school is surrounded by stores that sell cigarettes. It is past time for us to do something about it.
Let’s be clear: Big Tobacco doesn’t care about Indiana youth. They just see dollar signs and they don’t see our hearts. They don’t see our tears, our communities and our families. They spend $300 million each year in Indiana to market to us.
We need Indiana lawmakers to care as much about protecting us from Big Tobacco, as Big Tobacco wants our dollars and our lives.
Raising the cigarette tax is the most effective thing to protect kids and youth from smoking. The Raise It for Health campaign, of which I’m a Youth Ambassador, says that raising the cigarette tax would not only protect 60,000 Indiana youth from ever starting to smoke, it would raise millions of dollars that can be invested in my community and communities all across the state. It could help smoking adults quit. It could fund youth prevention work. It could do so much good.
It isn’t just young people like me who support policy changes to reduce tobacco use. On the 19th, I’ll be helping to deliver 7,000 postcards of support to Indiana lawmakers. Each one is meaningful, but the name I’ll be carrying with me is that of my grandmother, Patricia.
I hope lawmakers will consider taking steps this year to make Indiana a healthier state by reducing tobacco use. We want this change. We need this change.