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Two seniors from Alden High alert School Board to how stores, pharmacies market tobacco products

For two Alden High School seniors, the way that tobacco companies market their products to children stinks, and it’s more than just the smell of cigarette smoke.

The students – Grace Bailey, 17, and Nicole Forsyth 18 – recently conducted a survey in Alden, assessing and photographing how area stores and pharmacies were displaying tobacco products. Their findings surprised them, and the pair presented them to the Alden Central School Board last week.

“I never really realized it,” Grace said. “I’ve kind of been oblivious.”

In many of the stores, tobacco products were placed at the eye level of children and packaged to look like candy. With photos, the students demonstrated how closely bright-colored packaging of tobacco products resembles that of candy and other treats that children are attracted to.

E-cigarettes are also marketed in dangerous ways, Nicole said, including on placards on tables at local malls where teenagers like to congregate.

“They’re the unknown,” she said. “They’re highly addictive, have a lot of toxic chemicals in them and can lead to premature death.”

Grace pointed out that not all of the stores were open to having their displays photographed.

“We had one mean lady,” she said. “She kind of got really mad and kicked me out. But it’s OK.”

At the high school, Nicole and Grace are members of Students Against Destructive Decisions. The group partners with Reality Check, a program funded by the New York State Bureau of Tobacco Control and located at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

Lindsay A. Amico, coordinator of Reality Check, said the program focuses on youths and works to educate students on the dangers of tobacco.

“It’s still the No. 1 cause of preventable death in the United States,” she said. “I think a lot of people don’t realize that tobacco is still such a huge problem.”

Grace and Nicole drew support from the board, with several members commending them for their work on the issue.

“It’s sad, when you think about it,” board member James N. Yoerg said about the marketing practices.

Along with working on tobacco issues, The student organization partners with groups in the area fighting addiction, including the Alden Substance Abuse Coalition, said Jessica Frain, a special-education teacher who serves as adviser for the group.

Grace and Nicole went to Albany in February to lobby for protecting children from tobacco marketing, as well as to run a postcard campaign of people supporting their message.

Nicole and Grace plan to continue their activism on tobacco issues in college, and Grace also is planning on an internship with Reality Check.

In the short term, both students hope the steps they have taken so far have an impact, including working toward pharmacies not selling tobacco products.

Last week, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz proposed making thew county the first one in the state to ban pharmacy retailers from selling cigarettes and e-cigarettes.

“You walk into a pharmacy and say, ‘Whoa, that’s a really big wall of tobacco products,’ ” Grace said, noting the disconnect between smoking and wellness, with Frain adding, “It’s such a contradiction.”