In New Jersey, the anti-smoking youth organization REBEL (Reaching Everyone By Exposing Lies) continues to take the state by storm.
"Our biggest success has been expanding, because when we started, we were just about 200 kids [statewide], not really doing much yet," said Elizabeth Velazquez, 17, of West New York, who is the president of Hudson County REBEL. "Now we're about 10,000 and it's a great feeling."
The statewide organization, which is sponsored by New Jersey's Partners in Prevention, is a youth-led, youth driven, anti-tobacco movement whose mission is to reach, educate, and empower New Jersey's youth to make healthy lifestyle decisions.
"Our members come from all over Hudson County including West New York, Union City, North Bergen, Jersey City, and Kearny," Elizabeth said.
"When you come here, you know everyone is here for the same reason, and it's just a good cause," said Nicole Natal, 20, a REBEL volunteer.
Victories in Hudson County Hudson County REBEL has approximately 300 to 400 members between the ages of 14 and 17, who go around to different area schools mentoring elementary to high school kids on the dangers of underage smoking.
"I found out about REBEL through Stephanie Rivera [one of the members], when she visited us at West New York School No. 1," said Maria Lara, 14, Memorial H.S. "They talk to us about a lot of different things like drugs and health, and that through this group you meet a lot of people. We're just a big happy family."
"This is my first year with REBEL and it's going great," said Jesse Adu-Odei, 17, Snyder H.S. in Jersey City. "I was already a member of TIGS [another anti-smoking youth group], and my friend from Lincoln H.S. told me about them. They go out and present their message just like what we do with TIGS."
A time of celebration Last week, the group celebrated a year of accomplishments and growth within their organization by hosting their third annual lock-in at Hoboken's YMCA. The lock-in, which took place from 8 p.m. until 8 a.m. on Friday, April 15, brought about 150 teens from all over the county for a night of workshops, dinner, dancing, and fun with friends. While participating, kids could not smoke, consume alcohol or drugs, or engage in any illicit behavior. However, some exceptions are made for those who currently have smoking habits they are trying to break.
"We actually believe in helping a person who wants to quit," said Elizabeth. "During the events and the meetings we confiscate the cigarettes, and if they can get through one night without going crazy, it's just a step in the right direction."
The night began with some introductions to the evening's schedule, and a guest speaker who talked to the kids about various social topics. Afterwards dinner was provided, and the kids were broken up into groups and attended three different workshops, including a program known as "Reality Check," which was run by Elizabeth Velazquez, president of the REBEL's Hudson County Chapter and a senior at West New York's Memorial High School.
"The first half of the night things will be alternating every 30 minutes, and we teach classes in peer pressure, club drugs, tobacco workshops and reality check," said Elizabeth.
After the workshops concluded, the kids all congregated to the main gym, where they participated in games about the night's lessons.
The evening concluded with a full-out dance party that began at 2 a.m. and lasted until the wee hours of the morning. The kids were then released at about 8 a.m., ready to sleep after their all-night excursions.
About REBEL New Jersey REBEL came about during the November 2000 "Kick Ash Bash" Youth Summit, where 340 teens from across the state met in McAfee, N.J. The teens spent the weekend learning about how the tobacco industry markets its products to attract young people and how to fight back against Big Tobacco. As a result, the youths came together and initiated the new statewide advocacy movement known as REBEL.
The organization has grown into a statewide phenomenon that includes about 10,000 members from around the state.
Some of the schools including Jersey City and Kearny run their REBEL program through the school, but the main base works out of West New York.
"We meet about two to three times a month, depending if we have any events as well," said Elizabeth. "We have an up coming event on the 20th, where all the counties will celebrate a year of success."
REBEL has also sent representatives including Elizabeth to work with other youth anti-smoking groups around the country from California to Florida's TRUTH campaign.
In 1998, 46 states, Washington D.C. and five U.S. territories signed an agreement with the five largest tobacco companies called the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA), which required the tobacco companies to pay $206 billion for 25 years of damage caused by their products.
The companies also agreed to ban cartoon characters in advertising, promotion, packaging and labeling; restrict brand-name sponsorship of events with significant youth audiences; and ban outdoor advertising, such as billboards.
Hudson County REBEL is currently focusing on their countywide initiatives including enforcing the no smoking laws of school policy, and continuing with their no-smoking postings in all the parks of Hudson County.