INDIANAPOLIS — Tobacco use has been a consistent part of Lauren Silcox’s life, whether she likes it or not.
Less than a year ago she was frequently encountering students smoking and vaping in the bathrooms at Greenfield-Central High School, where she graduated last spring.
Now as a freshman at Indiana University in Bloomington, she’s exposed to the pervasive vaping culture that she says has become prevalent on college campuses nationwide.
On Wednesday, Jan. 18, Silcox was among the five keynote speakers at a Youth Day of Action at the Indiana Statehouse to call attention to the impact tobacco and e-cigarette use have on young Hoosiers.
The 19-year-old was invited to speak as a national advocate for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids as well as VOICE, Indiana’s statewide youth empowerment group that was created to engage, educate and empower teens to celebrate a tobacco-free lifestyle.
Fellow keynote speakers included the state department of health’s Chief Medical Officer Lindsay Weaver, statewide VOICE coordinator Stacy London and two fellow VOICE alumni.
Silcox said it was an honor to be chosen to speak at Wednesday’s event — hosted by VOICE and the Indiana Department of Health — which was held in the south atrium of the statehouse.
State Sen. Michael Crider was among those who listened as student advocates spoke out against the tobacco industry for targeting young people in their marketing tactics.
A combined 60 students from all four Hancock County high schools were part of the rally, all members of either VOICE or the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, or both.
Silcox took a few moments before the rally to share her own motivation for becoming an outspoken opponent of teen tobacco use.
“A big reason why I’m involved is that I have family members who smoked but have since quit. I was also exposed to people vaping in my high school’s bathrooms and now on my college campus. It’s been present throughout my entire life,” she said.
She’s developed a passion for teaching other young people about the tobacco industry’s targeted marketing practices, and encouraging others to steer clear of tobacco use for good.
In addressing the crowd Wednesday, she shared that speaking out against tobacco use isn’t always a popular decision, and can even cost you friends.
In high school, “some of my oldest friends thought negatively about me because I chose an extracurricular that had to do with tobacco control. I’ve had rumors spread about me and I’ve faced much adversity in my role as an ambassador,” she said, adding that the fight was well worth it.
“As an ambassador, I have had so many incredible opportunities like this to share with others what life can be like as someone who doesn’t conform, who doesn’t vape, drink or smoke,” said Silcox.
“I have shared my story with many teens like yourselves and adults who were unsure about this initiative … I can tell you all that it is few and far in between anymore that you find others who have chosen to live a life like this, so it is important to link up, which is the reason we are all here today.”
Students and adult allies in the crowd were seen carrying red, white and blue paper chains they brought to the rally, written with inscriptions of why the fight against tobacco was important to each of them.
“Each color stands for something,” said Brandee Bastin, Tobacco Initiative Coordinator for the Hancock County Tobacco Free Coalition, run through Hancock Health.
“In the red links, they wrote down the names of people they each know who have struggled with addiction. The white was to give an example of why they got involved with this movement, which for some means seeing a family member struggle with addiction, or wanting to help their peers.
The blue is for writing down something they’ve done to make a difference in their community,” she said.
Eastern Hancock High School seniors Gracie Castner and Katie Survant, who were at Wednesday’s rally, hoped the visual will impact local legislators by sharing a young person’s perspective on tobacco use.
“Our lawmakers live in a different setting that we do, so they don’t always understand the perspective from high school students,” said Gracie, 17.“They’re shocked to hear that we can’t go to the bathroom (during the school day) because it’s full of people vaping, or that you’ll get smoke blown in your face when you ask someone to move so you can wash your hands, so it’s important that they hear that from us.”
Her friend Katie agreed.
“I think it’s important to let (legislators) know what it’s like to see (the teenage vaping epidemic) first hand,” she said.
“We need to tell them what it’s really like in the schools and how it’s affecting our everyday lives, because even though we’re not using we see our peers who are using, and we feel for them and want to help them … It’s important that they know how passionate we are about one day having a tobacco-free generation,” she said.