Editor’s note: Startland is the parent organization of Startland News, though this report was produced independently by Startland News’ non-profit newsroom. Click here to read more about Startland’s education and real-world learning work.
Four teenagers from high schools across Kansas City have banded together in hopes of passing legislation to prohibit smoking products that contain nicotine, tobacco and marijuana in a vehicle when minors are present.
“Our very goal is to pass this at a federal level,” said Vari Patel, a junior at Blue Springs South High School. “We’re going to try our hardest to do so after getting it across Missouri and Kansas.”
Patel and her cohort — Zara Jamshed, Leila Pedreros and Matthew Nunez — met in February through the Startland Social Change Internship, an eight-week program aimed at encouraging students to create social change, according to the Startland website.
Click here to learn more about Startland’s Social Change Internship.
By the internship’s third week, the teens bonded over a mutual desire to put an end to secondhand smoking consumption among minors, Patel shared.
“We know that there’s been a lot of efforts done on regular smoking, but we haven’t seen much on secondhand smoking,” she said. “So I ended up drafting an entire legislation and sent it to the group. From there, we started making changes to make this a comprehensive bill.”
They narrowed the focus of the bill to encompass secondhand smoking in public transportation, commercial vehicles, rental vehicles and personal vehicles, Patel continued.
At week five, they were sending emails to surrounding city councils.
“At first, we got quite a bit of rejections,” Patel recalled. “But then they did a double take and reached out to us again. … It’s important that we come across as very professional. We are trying to make change; we’re not just kids messing around.”
The students’ efforts didn’t come to an end when the Startland internship wrapped up at the end of March. Continuing toward their goal of passing their bill, they founded Students of Change — a nonprofit organization that invites other teens to fight for social progress.
Students of Change’s current focus is “QuitKidsSmoking” through fighting to end secondhand smoking, but the group plans to expand into other areas such as mental health, Patel said.
Click here to check out Students of Change.
Passing the bill
Local, state and even federal legislatures have shown interest in the Students of Change secondhand smoking bill, Patel shared.
“We met with Zac [Donley] from [U.S. Rep.] Sharice Davids’ office, and he talked us through how this process will look on a federal level,” she noted of the Kansas Congresswoman’s team. “He was invested in the legislation, so we do have somewhat of a path already aligning.”
Patel also met with Kansas state Rep. Mary-Lynn Poskin, who is on board to start helping the teens draft the legislation, Patel said. The students plan to pitch their bill to the State of Kansas in January 2022, she added.
Until then, the teens are meeting with local city councils and continuing to gather information through surveys and petitions.
“Whenever you’re trying to pitch at a council or state level, you need statistics that show people are in support of the bill being passed,” Patel explained. “That’s why we initially put out the petition and survey — because we needed the citizens of each individual city council to be behind us.”
The teens are vying for a spot on the city council agenda in Overland Park and have also met with the city councils from Lee’s Summit, Independence, Shawnee Mission and Leawood.
“We also have a meeting coming up with Eric Bunch from Kansas City because he wanted to hear more about the legislation,” Patel said. “… Right after we get the legislation passed in Overland Park, we’re going to be reaching out to counties like Jackson County, Johnson County and Platt County.”
Prohibiting smoking in cars while minors are present likely would be impactful, according to a 2020 study by Thorax. The report found that a 2015 ban in England has already been associated with a reduction in secondhand smoke exposure among teens.
Each student has a personal reason they want this legislation to be passed, they said. For Patel, she has seen several of her peers being negatively affected by tobacco, nicotine and marijuana products, she said.
“At the end of the day, the minors who are breathing in this secondhand smoke are more likely to be addicted to these substances because they were around much of the fumes,” Patel stated. “They can have respiratory problems and other serious issues. We want to see a new generation that is smoke-free, so we’re starting with putting an end to secondhand smoking in vehicles.”
Startland’s next Social Change Internship is expected to run June 9 to July 28. Interested students may click here to apply.
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.