The Tobacco-Free Hawaiʻi Island (TFHI) Coalition is a vibrant group of community partners from community health centers, education, public health, non-profits, native Hawaiian health care, and government agencies.  Through dedicated coalition partners, we have led the most progressive tobacco control policies in the state of Hawaiʻi; many of our current partners began advocating for tobacco control as youth. HIPHI East Hawaiʻi staff, Sally Ancheta conducted the following interview with Allen Bartolome, Special Projects Coordinator, Crime Prevention and Justice Assistance Group from the County of Hawaiʻi Office of the Prosecuting Attorney. Mahalo to Allen for sharing his journey from youth advocacy to active TFHI Coalition partner.

“Tell us how you first got involved with REAL and what was REAL?”

My REAL journey started when I attended Pahoa High & Intermediate School. I got involved in the State Student Council in 2000 with the support of my student advisors/mentors. During a conference on the island of O‘ahu, I met Mary Jane Ahrendes and Nicole Sutton who were coordinators of the REAL program from the University of Hawai‘i Cancer Research Center.

REAL, Hawaii’s youth movement to expose the tobacco industry through youth guerrilla marketing tactics, began in 2000 with the support of a grant from the American Legacy Foundation (the Truth Initiative), with funding later shifting to the Hawaiʻi Tobacco Prevention and Control Trust Fund (TPCTF). The TPCTF was established by the state legislature following the successful lawsuit against the large tobacco companies..  REAL started with the intention to gather youth in Hawaiʻi to create a statewide youth-led campaign to reduce tobacco use. The approach was “for the youth, by the youth”, and specifically created something that was local (not just another prevention program that came from the mainland). At the time, about one in four youth in Hawaiʻi reported using tobacco products. I was a member of the first statewide youth leadership team as well as the founding board.

The founding board of youth named the group REAL (because Hawaiʻi youth are ‘REAL’ in telling the truth about the tobacco industry). For many years most of the work in teen tobacco prevention was around telling kids not to smoke because it was dangerous and addictive. REAL used a new approach that focused on social justice, accountability of the tobacco industry, and its intentional targeting of youth and ethnic minorities. 

“What has surprised you most about working in prevention efforts and tell us about what you currently do now?”

What surprises me the most about prevention is the shift of mindset and society when it comes to prevention of tobacco and vaping. Prevention of tobacco 20 years ago took a lot of convincing to peers and adults as compared to now. Today’s data shows the harmful effects of tobacco use and (generally) individuals know the ramifications of tobacco use. Fast-forward to 2020, we (prevention professionals) face the same battle that we once faced 20 years ago when it comes to youth vaping.

I currently work for the County of Hawaiʻi Office of the Prosecuting Attorney as a Special Projects Coordinator in the Crime Prevention & Justice Assistance Group (CPJAG). The unit works in the prevention of domestic violence, sex assault, juvenile crime, and substance abuse/misuse and other issues related to the criminal justice system. Our current role in tobacco/vape prevention is to build the capacity of community prevention stakeholders on Hawaiʻi Island by informational sharing and providing trainings.

“What do you find most challenging about advocating for tobacco/vape Control or what do you think is our greatest issue in tobacco control/youth vaping?”

After many decades of work by countless individuals to try to affect the source of the problem, tobacco/vape companies continue to addict some of the most vulnerable people in the country under some of the most heavily regulated conditions. Tobacco/vape companies continue to create innovative products at a rate that public policy and awareness/prevention efforts can barely keep up with.

“If you could change one thing about the tobacco use and/or the youth e-cigarette epidemic, what would it be?”

Early prevention within the educational system. The ability to educate our youth is very important. Not only on the ramifications of tobacco/vaping, but making healthy choices as a whole and having the ability to have refusal skills and living a healthy lifestyle.

“What do you wish other people knew about the Tobacco-Free Hawaiʻi Island Coalition and becoming an advocate?”

The participants of the Tobacco-Free Hawaiʻi Island coalition are a very inclusive group of people. Everyone is very pleasant to work with and very knowledgeable. The group is very diverse. There are people who live, work and service almost every community on the island. Participants come from various professional backgrounds. Some participants come from the medical, government, education, and non-profit fields. Meetings are very structured and participant driven. Participants are given the time to bring up concerns and get needs addressed.

“Finally, what do you want to share with youth and/or adults who are affected by tobacco/vape use and want to join the movement?”

If you believe full heartedly in a cause, get involved. I got involved in tobacco prevention because I had asthma and majority of my immediate family were smokers while I was growing up. I remember numerous nights going to the hospital or using a nebulizer because of my health issues related to others’ tobacco use. About 6 years ago, one of my parents was diagnosed with oral cancer as a direct result of decades of smoking. That parent is now in remission. My story is not unique. The addiction to tobacco/vape is real. We need to take hold of the vaping epidemic from a multifaceted approach with various levels of prevention, intervention, treatment and regulation. We cannot afford to sit back and see how vaping will affect the future generations. In order for prevention to work, we all in society need to do our part to stay informed and get involved. 

Tobacco-Free Hawaiʻi Island welcomes you to join Allen and all of our coalition partners to link resources that inspire our diverse communities to reduce tobacco use and exposure and create a tobacco-free Hawaiʻi Island. For more information please visit our TFHI Informational Flyer or email Sally Ancheta, East Hawaiʻi Coordinator at sally@hiphi.org or Lisa DeSantis, West Hawai‘i Coordinator at lisa@hiphi.org.