Eight Garden City High School students and graduates were acknowledged at the Tuesday Garden City Commission meeting as recipients of the 2017 Ambassador Award from the University of Kansas Cancer Center.

The honor was designated to the students, all part of the GCHS Live Well Committee, for their efforts in making Garden City the only community in southwest Kansas where buying and possessing tobacco products is illegal for residents younger than 21. Students involved in the effort included Hannah Schultz, Grace Schmidt, Garret Kipp, Cambry Hitchcock, Caroline Robinson, Grace Reagle, Paola Rodriguez and Agustin Rodriguez.

The local effort that began in October 2016 was part of a larger Tobacco Twenty-One campaign that, since November 2015, has implemented the policy change in 17 communities to reduce the probability of long-term tobacco addiction in youth and limit access to underage users.

According to Tobacco21.org, Garden City is arguably the newest community to ratify the change. Unincorporated Johnson County approved legislation that went into effect on July 1, the same day Garden City’s ordinance actualized. Olathe, the county seat of Johnson County, put the measure into effect on Feb. 2, 2016.

Donna Gerstner, grant coordinator for the Chronic Disease Risk Reduction program at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, oversaw the student-led effort to pass the ordinance. She said the award was given to the students in acknowledgement of their efforts as high school kids in a battle fought predominantly by adults in the eastern part of the state.

“It’s kind of a big deal when you’ve got youth that are involved, working toward a health problem and trying to make a difference in their community by possibly keeping young ones from starting tobacco,” Gerstner said. “The problem is 18-year-olds are in their school, and a lot of times 18-year-olds will provide tobacco products to the younger ones.”

T-21 reports that the number of high school-age kids using tobacco is slightly below the national average, while the rate of adult Kansans who smoke is above the national average.

According to the same report, approximately 61,000 children younger than 18 will eventually die due to smoking-related ailments, and 1,600 children are becoming daily smokers each year, costing $1.12 billion in annual health care costs and $1.09 billion in lost productivity.

Robinson was the only member of the student-led effort who was present at the City Commission meeting on Tuesday and the Community Health Advisory Board meeting that preceded it, when all eight students were acknowledged for their work.

“It makes me feel very accomplished and very proud of not only myself but of this entire community,” she said. “We were able to take something, where in Garden City there is little to no background about T-21, and get it passed and get it approved and actually have the ordinance go into effect all well within a calendar year.”

Gerstner said college and work obligations prevented other members of the committee from attending the brief receptions. Robinson noted that she was disappointed that more of her peers couldn’t be with her.

The ordinance was introduced in February and officially approved in April after a month-long period when residents would have been able to protest the measure, which was backed by 50 local business sponsors.

Nothing in state law prevents local government from enacting individualized youth access regulations for tobacco, and the quick passage of the ordinance took some residents by surprise.

Violators of the ordinance are subject to a $25 fine, and those who sell, furnish or distribute tobacco products to anyone younger than 21 are subject to a Class B violation and a minimum $200 fine.

After news of the ordinance’s impending implementation in April, local GCHS students orchestrated petitions and other grassroots efforts protesting the move. One petition organized by then-17-year-old junior Jack Koehn garnered 202 supporters in Kansas and 218 total via an online platform. The petition eventually was terminated due to controversy it was generating at and beyond the high school.

Students against the measure argued that the military draft begins at 18, and citizens old enough to fight and die for their country should be able to legally purchase and possess tobacco.

Robinson said friends of hers younger than 21 who use tobacco products have bemoaned her efforts. While the purchase of tobacco is still legal in Holcomb, the added travel time and illegality within Garden City limits poses an inconvenience. Robinson said that was exactly the point.

“That was really our main deal,” she said. “We knew that kids were still going to get it if we stopped one or two or five kids. … For it to be more of a nuisance is what we wanted to happen.”

Gerstner said that it is too early to recognize what the full effects of the change in policy will be, but she noted that, “They’re going to be more cautious about providing it to the younger ones, that much I do know.”

Now, Gerstner has her sights set on spreading the policy throughout Finney County as the movement progresses.