By Lavenia Chappel

Helping students focus on ways to prevent their peers from smoking was the focus of a two-day tobacco-free conference sponsored by Tennessee State University and the Truth Initiative on April 21 and 22.

Keynote speaker Dr. Phil Gardiner said 99 percent of smokers start before the age of 26 and that’s why college campus policies are critical to help prevent the use of tobacco by young adults.

Truth targets Historically Black Universities and Colleges because studies over the last few decades have shown that tobacco companies prey on African American communities. Students from Tennessee State University, Le Moyne-Owen, Lane and American Baptist College attended the conference.

During his presentation, Gardiner said that there needed to be ongoing community engagement, dedicated funding and a hard- hitting ongoing campaign to aid to the elimination of tobacco use. “Tobacco impacts us all but it’s time to change the social norms,” said Gardiner.

He said that students on college campuses must take action by pushing for the enactment of local laws and ordinances that restrict the sale and distribution of menthol.

Tobacco usage as a social issue rose to the top of discussion in the workshops. Each school was given an outlined proposal where they had to work as a group and go through the process of solving a problem. The proposal was broken down into eight steps, which were: Identifying what the need is, identifying the problem and solution, then set up goals, conduct campus mapping, identify and develop activities, collaboration, identify the possible challenges, evaluate your effectiveness and implementing the plan.

The proposal started a debate because students had different opinions about what mostly influences their peers on black campuses. Many students felt that creating something fun will get the most attention.

Others felt getting Greek organizations involved would attract even more attention.

Rebecca Selove, Research Associate Professor at TSU, said prior to the conference that she just wanted to see people come away from this excited about being ambassadors for the issue. While sitting down with a few of the students she realized that they were all there because they were already excited and passionate about making their campuses tobacco-free. “All of the students that were present held such strong opinions, ideas and strong beliefs that tobacco usage will come to end soon, and we need our youth to express that to the public to convey the ongoing community engagement and campaigning,” she said.

Truth Initiative executives told students of ways they can become more involved with the organization and help end the tobacco epidemic. Truth is now accepting applications for its 2017-2018 Youth Activism Fellowship. It is a 12-month program for 18-24 year olds who want to gain critical social change skills. The deadline for applications are May 31, and students can apply for the fellowship at