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Democrat Photo by Jeanne Sager

REALITY CHECK COORDINATOR Sean Welsh, left, sets up a banner with members Ashley Argent, center, and her sister, Brittany.

When Reality Hits,
Check With Them

By Jeanne Sager
LIBERTY — April 13, 2004 – Think every kid’s just itching to pick up a cigarette when they hit high school?
Some local teens say you’re in for a reality check.
Sullivan County is brimming with kids who are out to fight the good fight against Big Tobacco.
Thanks to a settlement agreement in the late 1990s against the nation's biggest tobacco companies, kids across the country now have the means to fight tobacco usage.
More than $206 billion will be taken from the tobacco companies over a course of 25 years and given to the states to educate the public about the ills of tobacco.
In New York, monies were put into Youth Empowerment grants, which the state’s Department of Health used to create “Reality Check.”
In Sullivan County, kids in seven school districts have been introduced to Big Tobacco and said “no.”
They’ve learned that 3,000 teens start smoking every day in America – and they’ve vowed to make that number go down.
Ashley Argent is one of the original members of Sullivan County’s chapter of Reality Check.
The Liberty High School senior attended a Reality Check summit at Keuka College in 2001, and she was “hooked.”
“It brings in fun while you’re learning at the same time,” Argent explained. “You’re more apt to go to events that are fun.”
The program still has a grassroots feel. One kid tells another kid who tells another kid, and so on and so on.
Argent has brought a lot of kids from her school to events, and they’ve decided to bring some of their friends.
Program Director Sean Welsh has set up booths at local health fairs, spoken at local schools and helped sign up more than 400 kids between the ages of 13 and 18 for Reality Check programs.
The events are all based on education, with a focus on how the tobacco industry has invaded every sector of society.
The program has gotten funds to rent out the Callicoon Theater, and every Reality Check kid can get in for free to watch a movie.
When someone on the screen lights up, the kids are instructed to stomp as hard as they can on the theater floor – signifying a move to “stomp out” the cigarette butt.
Sullivan County kids team up with other Hudson Valley Reality Check members to put on a yearly “Oscars” show at Anthony’s Pier 9 in New Windsor.
The kids dress up like movie stars and accept “awards” for categories such as “most smoking in a movie.”
The aim, according to Welsh, is to point out how the movie industry glorifies smoking. According to Reality Check literature, experts surmise that the elimination of tobacco use in all G, PG, and PG-13 movies would avert 62,000 tobacco-related deaths in the future, every year the policy is in place.
The Reality Check kids are working to make that happen.
They write letters, they attend national seminars.
“This is youth empowerment,” Welsh noted. “So these guys tell me what they want to do.”
One of the keys is getting as many kids involved as possible.
Reality Check gives pizza boxes with their message to county pizzerias, and they distribute pamphlets about movies to area video stores.
Welsh also sends announcements about Reality Check to every school in the county.
Argent has seen a change at Liberty High.
But it’s still a big concern.
“Our bathrooms always smell,” she said. “They’ve had to shut them down.”
In fact, Reality Check is planning an Earth Day cleanup at Liberty High School just to pick up the cigarette butts that litter the grounds – and they’re going to help the district enact a “no smoking on campus” policy.
Kids who join Reality Check don’t have to sign a promise not to smoke. And if you’ve lit up at some time in the past, you’re still welcome to join.
“We’re not anti-smoker,” Argent explained. “We’re trying to get them to see how Big Tobacco targeted them and got them involved with smoking.”
Reality Check has given Argent a lot more information to work with, she said.
Although no one in her family smoked, she still sees it at school.
And she can tell other kids her favorite quote.
“Tobacco kills more people than AIDS, murder, drugs, suicide, alcohol and car accidents combined,” Argent said.
Those are some pretty hefty statistics.
“It’s given me more information on not smoking – not just “don’t do it,’” added Argent’s sister, 14-year-old Brittany.
“We come at it from a different angle from the schools,” Welsh explained. “At the schools, it’s kind of a gross-out tactic.”
But at Reality Check, you don’t see pictures of blackened lungs or emphysema-wracked bodies.
You get hard facts, scary statistics.
And Welsh hopes he’s helped kids in the county.
Reality Check will begin preparing statistics soon to see if there has been a drop in tobacco usage here in Sullivan County.
Anyone who wants to join should call Welsh at his office at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Liberty: 292-6180.

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