By Jackie Shi
First, count the number of libraries in your neighborhood. Done? Now, count the number of stores that sell tobacco in your neighborhood. Can you count them? Probably not. I was raised in Bayside all of my life. In my small, suburban neighborhood, we have a total of two libraries. Considering the size of the area, that’s pretty impressive. But what blew my mind was the fact that while Bayside has two libraries, my neighborhood has at least 25 tobacco retail outlets.
In my town, almost every single block has a tobacco outlet; some have multiple outlets. According to recent demographics, Bayside’s population has one of the highest percentages of children in all of Queens, with about a quarter of the population being children. That’s about 30,000 kids. How does it make sense that in a community filled with kids and families, the number of tobacco outlets outweighs the number of parks and libraries in the area?
Recent studies show that 90 percent of people who smoke start before the age of 18. In fact, the average age for someone to start smoking is 13. That would mean that my little brother, who’s only in middle school, can also become hooked on tobacco.
In New York City, it is illegal to sell tobacco products to youth under the age of 21. How are young New Yorkers gaining access to cigarettes? The more tobacco outlets we have in our communities, the more outlets there are for kids to get tobacco. One in every three New York City high school students who smokes says that they obtain their cigarettes from a neighborhood retail store. Tobacco products are too easily accessible in our communities and the widespread availability of tobacco encourages and promotes youth to start smoking.
There are more than 9,000 tobacco outlets that swamp city neighborhoods. Do we really want our kids to be exposed to deadly and dangerous products such as cigarettes? Do we really want our kids to have myriad ways to obtain addictive substances like nicotine?
This summer, I’m working with NYC Smoke-Free at Public Health Solutions to help create a tobacco-free generation. We are tackling the prevalence of tobacco use and the citywide proliferation of tobacco. Together, we can help end the No. 1 cause of preventable death: tobacco products. Whenever I’m cleaning up in a classroom, my teacher always reminds me to leave the place better than I found it. Shouldn’t the same be applicable to the Earth as well? Our kids deserve better than to live in a tobacco swamp festering with dangerous tobacco products and I hope that in my lifetime, I can be one of the people who creates a smoke-free generation starting with my Bayside neighborhood in Queens.