Teen activists push Overland Park to consider new smoking ban aimed at protecting young children

Four Kansas City-area teens working through an internship with nonprofit Startland have authored a proposal for municipalities to ban the use of tobacco in cars where children are present. The group includes, clockwise from top left: Leila Pedreros, Matthew Nunez, Zara Jamshed and Vari Patel. Jamshed is a sophomore at Blue Valley North High School. Images courtesy Students of Change website.

Five years ago, most Kansas City-area municipalities banned the sale of tobacco products to those under 21 years old. Now four local high school students, including a Blue Valley sophomore, want to take things a step further and outlaw smoking, vaping and other tobacco use in vehicles where minors are present.

The four, who have been working with each other through an internship with Kansas City nonprofit Startland, have put an enviable infrastructure in place, including an online petition and survey, an email campaign and conversations with elected officials.

The group members say they hope to get a hearing at the Overland Park City Council about their proposal in the next few weeks.

The issue

Kids from three to eleven years old are among the most exposed to secondhand smoke, said Zara Jamshed, a sophomore at Blue Valley North High School.

About 40% of children in that age group are exposed to secondhand smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Jamshed and her group mates are proposing an ordinance that would ban adults from using nicotine products, marijuana and vape pens in vehicles where minors are present.

Their proposal would apply to rental cars and public transportation as well as privately owned vehicles. Nicotine gums would be exempted. The group is still debating about chewing tobacco because it does not involve smoke.

Several Johnson County cities, including Overland Park, have raised the legal age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21. Photo credit Aaron Yoo. Used under a Creative Commons license.

The idea grew from the teens’ concerns about the health effects of smoke concentration within cars and the inability of most younger children to recognize the danger and speak up about it, said Vari Patel, a junior at Blue Springs South High School in Missouri.

“A huge part of this project is building awareness,” Vari said.

Eventually, they hope to raise consciousness about smoke in cars as a safety risk akin to unbuckled seat belts.

The issue of tobacco and children has come up before in metro cities in recent years. Since 2016, more than 30 local governments, including Overland Park, have passed Tobacco 21 laws, raising the age to legally purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21.

Other Johnson County cities to have Tobacco 21 on the books include Lenexa, Leawood, Prairie Village, Merriam, Roeland Park, Mission Hills, Olathe, Westwood and Westwood Hills.

Enlisting support of officials, lawmakers

The students began their efforts about two months ago when they became interested in Startland, a Kansas City non-profit devoted to entrepreneurship.

That organization brought together Zara, Vari, Leila Pedreros, a senior at Crossroads Preparatory Academy in Kansas City, Mo., and Matthew Nunez, a sophomore at Park Hill South in Platte County, Mo.

After researching the idea, they decided to model their proposal on ordinances and laws that have been approved in nine states and Puerto Rico, as well as various municipalities across the country.

Besides Overland Park, they’ve brought their idea to Blue Springs, Kansas City, Mo., Independence, Lee’s Summit and Leawood.

They’ve also talked to U.S. Rep. Sharice David’s office and to at least one state lawmaker in Kansas. They say they hope to see their proposal introduced to the Kansas Legislature in the 2022 session.

Jamshed acknowledged that restrictions on tobacco can sometimes be an uphill fight, but said the group is hoping to gather support with its petition and perhaps organize a student coalition to bring students to testify at meetings when city councils return in person.

She also urges anyone she talks to to sign their online petition. It already has the support of Overland Park Councilmember Faris Farassati, a cancer research doctor.

Reasons behind the proposal

Neither Jamshed nor Patel say they grew up among frequent smokers, though Jamshed said she has been concerned about an uncle who smoked around her and her younger brother and grandmother.

With tobacco products marketed toward youth, she said she worries that if family members smoke around kids that tobacco use could become normalized by the time youngsters are old enough to make their own choices.

The teens said they are surprised at how far they’ve been able to come and how much support they’ve received.

Leila Pedreros, the Crossroads student, told the Startland blog she has been happy with the response the their initiative, which they call Quit Kids Smoking, has gotten.

“I had no idea that when we were going to work on this that we would pick up this much support so fast,” Pedreros said.

In fact the group has bigger plans even if the their smoking-in-cars ban is completely successful.

They would like to see other social, safety and environmental issues tackled in the future. With that in mind, they’re setting up a nonprofit advocacy group to encourage other teens to get involved in issues they care about.

“We want to keep this organization alive as long as possible,” Patel said. “We never thought in our lives we would actually pass legislation at 15, 16, 17 years old in Kansas City or any other city. We want to use this platform to influence other teens that you can make change and you can fight for something you wish to fight for, something you’re passionate about. You can really see a change.”