Tony Moulton speaks of Big Tobacco using battle terms, and he’s ready for a fight.
“Advertising companies are Kung-Fu sharp,” said Moulton, executive director of prevention agency Milton Community Youth Coalition, noting tobacco’s long-orchestrated campaign to lure young users.
“They are conniving, they are smart, they are savvy and they know that people don’t like to ask questions,” he said. “They count on that.”
Moulton has been MCYC’s director for four years and is using a big grant the nonprofit won in July to fight kids’ exposure to tobacco use and advertising in the community.
The Tobacco Community Prevention Grant was awarded by the Vermont Department of Health and will disperse approximately $63,500 for three consecutive years.
The money is already being used to raise awareness, change policy and shift the culture surrounding tobacco use in Milton.
The first piece requires using the latest that science and technology have to offer as well as gathering data the old fashioned way.
“We’ve been a part of doing audits of stores,” Moulton said. “Where are the stores, what are they selling, how close are they to schools, is there advertising at counter-level, are the products behind the counter or are they sitting beside the candy.”
Moulton said MCYC is using a program called Counter Tools that maps tobacco retailers in Vermont, as well as their proximity to public parks and schools. This information is then brought to partners in the community.
“You look at that data you’re like WTF,” Moulton said, short-handing the expletive.
He said tobacco companies are working hard to market as close to schools as they possibly can. And though Milton doesn’t have a retailer right next to either Milton educational facility, there are many Chittenden County towns with walking routes that pass students by ads for alcohol and tobacco, he said.
Moulton said he’s also using the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which monitors health-risk behaviors in Vermont schools, to identify trends in Milton and nearby towns.
One finding, Moulton said, is the “perception of harm” of e-cigarettes and vaporizer pens has “plummeted” recently, putting kids at a greater risk of using.
This data, along with MCYC’s evidence-based practices, is then used to enhance and support ongoing cessation and prevention work, Moulton said.
“We’ve built the relationships and credentials to say ‘Hey, here’s the latest science or data, here’s the latest strategy to tackle an issue, and here’s the funding to tackle that,” he said.
Jessica Summer, MCYC development director, said policy makes a proven difference on public health and is another of the coalition’s focuses.
One area where they are working to make a change is in signage, and specifically reducing tobacco advertising on the outside of businesses.
Summer said they can’t prevent businesses from advertising tobacco products, but they can advocate for a community that values more visibility near parking lots, roads and sidewalks to create a safer environment.
“We could say we only want 15 percent of the outside of your building covered with signage. And then store owners can choose what they want to have,” she said.
“[Businesses] start making choices: Do I want to advertise myself or another product? And generally they choose themselves.”
Zoning regulations in Manchester, Vt. only permit businesses to use a small percentage of a building’s exterior for signage. Summer said how this type of policy is implemented varies from town to town.
“It’s something that potentially could wind up in front of the voters in Milton, if that’s how the town council wanted to handle that,” she said. “But it’s also the kind of policy that they could just make if they wanted to.”
The coalition wants to form a group of community leaders within the next year to examine town policies and determine other areas where there is a need for improvement.
On a state level, MCYC is working with four other coalitions in Chittenden County on a policy primer to show how alcohol outlet density affects kids’ exposure to substance use and likeliness to use.
Summer said the same principles apply to tobacco outlet density.
Although alcohol and tobacco licenses are approved by the state, this policy highlights best practices when placing alcohol and tobacco retailers in proximity to schools, to one another and to vulnerable populations.
And this information can be brought to legislators, Summer said.
“[We can] let state legislators absorb that information and see if they, at some point down the road, want to make different policy choices,” she said.
When asked if an outright ban on smoking in public places was one of MCYC’s goals, Moulton said it’s not what he’s after, though bans have been effective in decreasing exposure.
“A simple ban or the word ‘ban’ is not changing the culture,” Moulton said. “We want the norm to be that we can go to parks, that we can go out in public and not have to worry about kids seeing an adult smoke.”
Moulton said changing culture is one of the coalition’s ultimate goals and maybe one of the furthest-reaching, in terms of preventing substance abuse and misuse.
He said the grant money is being put to good use to host “dialogue nights” in Milton and Colchester, funding an upcoming Smoke Free Housing summit in Winooski, as well as promoting programs and initiatives for the Vermont Department of Health.
“It’s about Milton saying we value not seeing or having people use substances, combustible or non-combustible, around other people. We value a community that’s substance abuse free,” he said.
This May, MCYC successfully lobbied the selectboard to pass a “free values” resolution that mimicked that language, an accomplishment Moulton termed a “broader initiative.”
Now, MCYC is working with partners in Colchester, which does not have a coalition working on substance abuse prevention, to get a similar resolution passed.
Within the next two years, Moulton wants to branch into Essex, Westford and other towns around the state, bringing MCYC’s best practices to more communities.
Moulton admits the issue is complex and said it has to be combatted with equal complexity.
“It’s not just a matter of having a conversation with one group of people once,” he said. “It’s about an ongoing dialogue. It’s about putting in place systems and strategies that span the course of time.”