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Muhlenberg professor and alumni’s fight towards Tobacco 21

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Muhlenberg professor and alumni’s fight towards Tobacco 21
Anti-smoking signs have been placed around campus. // Photo Courtesy of Karly McCloskey

On Sept. 26, 2019, faculty, staff and students of Pennsylvania colleges gathered at The Tobacco-Free College Campus Summit held at Kalahari Resorts Pocono Conference Center. 

The conference, organized by The American Lung Association (ALA), was designed for college and university administrators, faculty, staff, policy advocates and students striving towards tackling the question of creating a “successful and effective tobacco-free campus” at colleges and universities.

“It is really about preventing youth access to tobacco in high schools,”

Among the presenters were Muhlenberg Professor of Media and Communication Susan Kahlenberg and Muhlenberg alum Adrian Shanker ‘09, who presented together on the topic of “Engaging Students with Tobacco-Free Policies.” This topic is especially relevant to the Muhlenberg community because of the new Smoke and Vape Free campus policy implemented this past August.

Kahlenberg and Shanker’s presentation offered a unique approach to tobacco-free policies centered on media advocacy and action such as Tobacco 21, a campaign designed to raise the minimum legal selling age of tobacco to 21.

“It is really about preventing youth access to tobacco in high schools,” Shanker explained.

“Our presentation was focused on student engagement,” added Kahlenberg.

The presentation featured work from Kahlenberg’s Media Advocacy class, a 300-level Integrative Learning course (IL) for the Media and Communication Department.

“Media Advocacy introduces students to the strategic use of media to advance public health and social justice,” said Kahlenberg. “Students investigate principles, ethics and theories underlying media advocacy, monitor and analyze media framing and message development and use both traditional and new communication tools to construct and implement media interventions.”

During the course, students partnered with the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center to work on a variety of projects related to Tobacco 21.

The Center, founded by Shanker in 2016, is the Lehigh Valley’s first-ever LGBTQ+ community center. Since graduating Muhlenberg in ‘09, Shanker has become a recognized LGBTQ+ activist, working with organizations like the ACLU as well as with the Pennsylvania government to further LGBTQ+ rights.

Shanker has especially worked to address tobacco use within the LGBTQ+ community, co-authoring “Queer and Quitting: Addressing Tobacco Use as an LGBTQ Issue” as a chapter in The Routledge Handbook for LGBTQIA Administration and Policy. His research on the subject shows the significant disparities between tobacco use in the LGBTQ+ community and the general population. 18.5 percent of the general population consumes tobacco, while that number is 20.2 percent for LGBTQ+ Pennsylvanians. That number is even higher for LGBTQ+ Pennsylvanians ages 18-24, 42 percent of whom consume tobacco.   

Kahlenberg explained the process of her students’ research and how it connected to Shanker’s work. In the class, students were assigned to one of four student groups — legislative networking, media monitoring and two groups focused on different aspects of advocacy writing.  

“The legislative group met with. Rep. Peter Schweyer, a local legislator, to discuss tactics, strategies and approaches,” said Kahlenberg. “Students wrote letters targeting PA legislators and made phone calls in support of Tobacco 21.”

In the meantime, the media monitoring group tracked Tobacco 21 media coverage and provided their research to the other three groups to improve their projects. 

“The two advocacy writing groups were charged with proactively earning media coverage in support of Tobacco 21,” said Kahlenberg. “Students wrote letters to the editor and opinion editorials to local, regional and national news outlets from the college student point of view, with the class yielding a total of 11 publications overall and five related to Tobacco 21.” 

She was excited to share that “the ALA PACT newsletter shared two of the published articles in their statewide media roundup.” 

“We emphasized to attendees our belief that policy change should be bottom-up in partnership with students.”

Kahlenberg highlighted how she employed her students’ work into the presentation.

“We shared examples of students’ work (with their permission)…to demonstrate how students adapted and applied the learnings of our curriculum to develop their advocacy work associated with Tobacco 21,” said Kahlenberg. 

Ultimately, Kahlenberg emphasized the importance of students advocating for policy change independently and proactively. 

“Attendees gained ideas on how they could construct similar collaborative approaches at their own institutions to get students to mobilize for tobacco control policy on their own terms, in their own voices and embracing liberal arts principles of learning,” she said. “We emphasized to attendees our belief that policy change should be bottom-up in partnership with students.”

Cover Photo Courtesy of Karly McCloskey / The Muhlenberg Weekly

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