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Advocate Spotlight: Willow Peterson

Tobacco prevention and education work has been a significant focus point in my life for the past eight years. Some of my close family members and friends became addicted to nicotine at a very young age. Seeing them cough until vomiting, having trouble breathing, and using any means to feed their addiction had a powerful impact on me. It hurt me to see them abuse an addictive product that would negatively impact their physical and mental health. As a result, in 8th grade, I joined my local tobacco prevention club, React. When I started high school I saw my classmates begin to use tobacco products and that lead me to become a passionate health advocate.

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I’ve had the great honor of working with the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. As a sophomore in high school, I represented Montana at their annual Youth Advocacy Symposium. I flew out to Washington D.C. to work with other passionate youth from around the country. This program consists of a week of in-depth training from professionals and opportunities to talk to legislators at the federal level. I met with Senator Jon Tester to discuss how flavored tobacco is negatively impacting the lives of teens and young adults in Montana. I returned in 2017 and 2018 and in 2020 I became a Young Adult Ambassador.

Currently, I am continuing my tobacco prevention advocacy through the peer-led health education organization HEROES at MSU Billings. We educate about health and wellness topics that impact students every year, such as stress, sleep, mental health, healthy relationships, drug, tobacco, and alcohol use, and more. Amongst my college peers, I see how the marketing of flavored tobacco and vape products addict new generations of users. Many of my peers are using e-cigarettes daily. Many of them have been addicted to nicotine since junior high or high school.

With the support of the American Heart Association, I testified during the 2021 Montana Legislative Session on multiple tobacco and e-cigarette related bills. I spoke in opposition to HB-106 and HB-137, which would have eliminated all local protections against tobacco.  I also testified in opposition to HB-2, which would have decreased funding for React, the tobacco prevention program that inspired me to become a health advocate in my community. Additionally, the Billings Gazette published my letter to the editor in which I encouraged Montana legislators to vote against HB-106 and HB-137 and to support local decisions made by public health officials.

However, my mission to protect our youth is not over. 30% of Montana teens are using e-cigarettes daily. Flavors are the primary reason most teens try tobacco and vape products for the first time. The restriction of flavors would cause fewer kids to smoke and vape in junior high, high school, and college, resulting in fewer lifelong smokers and fewer friends and family helplessly watching their loved one’s health deteriorate. The responsibility is on us to educate and advocate our communities about the harmful effects of tobacco.

 

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