EDISON, NJ - Three Edison teens are part of the 14 students from New Jersey and 133 students from across the nation who are being recognized for their leadership in the fight against big tobacco. 

Incoming high school seniors, Keith Furtado, Laiba Mughal and Sophia Patel have been named as Youth and Young Adult Ambassadors by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (CTFK) for their work to end tobacco use in their community. The teens completed a five-day online training session as part of the Ambassador program to further hone their advocacy and communication skills.

Keith Furtado is a second-year ambassador with CTFK. He is involved with Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FFCLA) and engages with decision-makers on various tobacco control issues at the local, state and federal level.

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Laiba Mughal recently became an ambassador. She is involved in her local chapter FCCLA and educates and advocates for her peers to quit vaping.

Sophia Patel is also a second-year ambassador. She works with FCCLA to advocate for policy changes at the local, state, and federal levels, as well as to engage her peers in the fight against the tobacco industry.

According to the Tobacco-Free Kids website, the youth are twice as sensitive to tobacco advertising as adults and are more likely to be influenced by cigarette marketing to smoke than by peer pressure. Tobacco company advertising can also be attributed to a third of underage experimentation with smoking.

Furtado, Mughal, and Patel are devoted to educating their peers on the tobacco industry and the dangers of e-cigarettes and promoting change.

“I wanted to make sure that my peers, my friends, didn't go through the same thing that older generations did without making educated decisions about their health and lifestyle,” Patel said.

Each of the teens know someone whether a friend or family member, who has struggled with nicotine addiction. And while vaping seems “cool” or like a “fun thing to do” within their age group, they are passionate about bringing awareness to how harmful it really is.

“I've heard a lot of my friends say, ‘Oh, it's just water vapor. It's just flavoring.’ But they don't realize that one JUUL actually has the same amount of nicotine as a whole pack of cigarettes, and that's what's addicting them,” Patel said.

Overcoming nicotine addiction can be a struggle, as it results in withdrawal or multiple failed attempts at quitting.

“This (addiction) shouldn't happen to anyone, and this shouldn't be a reason for you or your family to be going through hardships with health,” Mughal said.

According to the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey, high school students’ e-cigarette use more than doubled to nearly 28% and middle school students’ use tripled to roughly 11% from 2017-2019. 

The three students attributed the spike in vaping to widespread availability in stores and online, lack of enforcement by retailers, and peer distribution.

Even with the recent ban on flavored vaping products, the teens brought attention to small businesses — like Puff Bar — that found a loophole in selling disposable e-cigarettes and instantly became students’ go-to product.

“They're a brand that's become much more popular now because they're disposable, very discreet and cheap,” Furtado said.

On July 20, the Food and Drug Administration called for the removal of Puff Bar’s products due to the company not having the required premarket authorization.

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that the number of youth who are vaping at 14 years old or younger has tripled within the past five years.

To prevent young teenagers and pre-teens from participating in vaping, the youth ambassadors suggested teaching them about health risks associated with vaping, particularly those that impact respiratory health and brain development. 

“It's just as dangerous as a cigarette, but because you're tasting cotton candy or mango, you might not think so,” Patel said. She advised others to research the side effects and continued, “You'll realize that you're destroying your lungs in the process.”

Mughal said parents should address the topic of vaping before their child is exposed to it around their peers.

 “Parents should really have a discussion with their children about this before actually asking them if they're doing it (vaping) or not. Warn them and sit them down and talk to them,” Mughal said.

Furtado added that in the event that a parent discovers their child is vaping, he recommends explaining why vaping is dangerous, talking to them instead of immediately punishing them and helping them find healthier alternatives to manage their stress.

The youth ambassadors clarified that they’re not against people who vape. They’re against the companies that specifically target young adults.

“We don't want to punish people for vaping. We want to educate them about what they're actually doing to themselves, help them out and stop the industry from doing this,” Furtado said.

“We are thrilled to welcome this new class of Youth and Young Adult Ambassadors, whose passion and leadership will help us create the first tobacco-free generation,” said Matthew L. Myers, President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “Young people are critical voices in the fight against tobacco because they speak from experience about how they are targeted by the tobacco industry. Policymakers should listen and support strong policies to protect our kids, including a prohibition on all flavored tobacco products.”