It started with cigarettes and ended with a heroin addiction that changed the happy childhood relationship Gabe Glissmeyer shared with his older sister.
Glissmeyer, a high school senior from South Jordan, remembers when his now 24-year-old sister began smoking cigarettes at age 13.
The habit led her to find new friends who encouraged her to try harder substances. Soon, the girl who Glissmeyer used to spend afternoons with at the park wasn't someone he trusted anymore.
"We used to be the best of friends. She started smoking and our whole friendship and everything got destroyed," said Glissmeyer. "What tobacco had done to her life, it led to her getting addicted to heroin. There were a lot of instances that she would choose to get high or smoke over hanging out with me."
Glissmeyer's sister recently marked two years living clean and sober. But the experience of her addiction inspired Glissmeyer to reach out to encourage other teenagers to avoid the addictive lure of tobacco.
He created "Out of the Smoke," a Utah Pride Center program designed to help youth in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities quit smoking. At gatherings, Glissmeyer and his peers work to change the social norm of "smoking is cool," he said.
Glissmeyer also served as president of the youth leadership board of Utah's statewide youth tobacco-control program, "One Good Reason," where he worked on an initiative called "It's All about the Packaging." It's aimed at teaching youth about how the tobacco industry targets them.
The "One Good Reason" program offers an outlet on its website, http://www.onegoodreason.net, where teens share stories about being pressured to start smoking and how they found various reasons to quit. The website offers an artist contest, a hip clothing line and features various bands.
Glissmeyer's efforts with both programs led to him being named the national Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids "Youth Advocate of the Year," an honor he received a at a recent gala in Washington D.C.
"Gabe Glissmeyer and other young leaders from across the nation are making great strides in the fight against tobacco and their voices are being heard," said Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "Young leaders like Gabe play a critical role in preventing kids from smoking and reducing tobacco's terrible toll on our nation."
According to campaign statistics, 8.5 percent of high school in Utah students smoke and an estimated 1,500 children age 18 and younger become daily smokers every year.
Tobacco is believed to be responsible for the death of 1,200 Utah residents each year and it costs the state an estimated $345 million in health care, the organization estimates.
Along with his experience with his sister, Glissmeyer was inspired to work on tobacco-control policy when he attended a gay pride event where someone suggested he "couldn't be gay" because he didn't smoke. He learned that some advocates believe LGBT youth are particularly susceptible to the marketing ploys of the tobacco industry a trend he wants to reverse.
Glissmeyer will graduate from high school on Tuesday and plans to continue his work as an advocate against tobacco. He already has worked with legislators to get Utah's Indoor Clean Air Act amended to include electronic cigarettes as items not permitted for use indoors.
He'll start college at the University of Utah next fall, with hopes to one day attend medical school.
He said he's hopeful people can learn to find their own reasons for putting down cigarettes.
"Everyone has one, whether it's your kids or your dog or some other health issue," said Glissmeyer. "Everyone has a reason to be tobacco-free."
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