Preventing drug use by empowering youth:  Coalition helps kids, teens understand advertising

Tony Moulton and Tabatha Kittson of the Milton Community Youth Coalition speak like insurgents in a bunker from their basement office across from the high school.

The analogy is fitting, says Moulton, who for the past five years has served as Executive Director of the decade old non-profit. The coalition’s primary mission is substance abuse prevention, and like any group with such a goal, they face a formidable adversary: big tobacco and alcohol companies. Both those groups have leveraged advertising and social media on a massive level to win the hearts and minds of kids, with the goal of getting them hooked on their substances.

With a budget nowhere near that of their foes, Moutlon and Kittson, the group’s development director for community support and substance abuse prevention, work to countermand that message, and to turn kids away from substances use.

“There are certainly days when it feels like an uphill battle,” said Moulton. “We’re the small entity trying to counter this massive message.”

Moulton said big tobacco companies, which now deal in vaping products, as well as alcohol makers, know they need to constantly get new users for their products, and to do that they target young people with a message of personal freedom and misinformation.

“They’re trying to find ways to trick teens into using,” he said. 

Of course, getting out in front of those messages takes some finesse, and both Moulton and Kittson say the old method of “just say no” is not the way. In fact, Moulton, who for the past 25 years has worked with at-risk kids in one capacity or another, said the “Just Say No” campaign not only failed, it actually made the situation worse.

“Kids know everything these days,” said Kittson, a mother of three middle school aged children. “The message can’t just be ‘don’t do it, it’s bad.’ It’s about showing them how these companies manipulate them.”

The new strategy, called Above the Influence, helps kids discover for themselves how bad vaping, smoking, and alcohol can be, and how advertisers persuade them to buy those products. Above the Influence takes cues from the Washington DC-based Truth Initiative.

“Youth empowerment says it all,” said Kittson. 

To empower youth to make their own decisions, the coalition works with community partners, as well as the Health Department, to create an environment that promotes health and civic involvement. To do this, the coalition sponsors the Milton Farmers Market to champion food access for families, promotes health and wellness through programs like 802 Quits, which helps kids break the smoking or vaping habit, and coordinates community engagement with events such as the Milton Activities Fair and National Night Out. 

Beyond the community involvement, Moulton said most of the coalition’s work is less-than-glamorous.

“We spend a lot of time working to affect policy and legislation to alter the landscape,” he said. “If you just look at all the advertising that’s out there, and then think of how a kid on a bus sees that message, it’s a really powerful thing.”

Moulton said the most difficult thing to fight is how companies market the concept that it’s an individual’s right to drink and smoke. That, coupled with the pervasive social media messaging, is the key to winning the kids before they start.

“We know that if you change the environment the kids live in, their usage plummets,” he said.