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Youth speak out against tobacco use

Date: 2/2/2009

By Natasha Clark

Assistant Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD Members of the Vietnamese Eucharist Youth Society (VEYS) are confronting the relationship between tobacco and their culture.

As a part of a mini-grant underwritten by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Tobacco Control Program and administered by the Mass Youth Against Tobacco, teens involved in the society are training to be role models to other youth in their community while rallying for the end of tobacco use.

The grant, which is in effect from November 2008 to June 2009, aims to get youth to participate in an action plan. It will support the youth through their anti-smoking campaign that also includes an upcoming roundtable discussion in April. There are about 12 to 15 VEYS members ranging in ages 13 to 17 who are involved with the project.

"Our plan is to invite the Vietnamese teens around Springfield. The youth involved in the grant will deliver anti-smoking messages to the teens to help them sort of pledge that they won't start smoking," Hao Pham, past president of the chapter and current liaison between VEYS and the Mass Youth Against Tobacco, said. "We've been having guest speakers from the American Lung Association and the Lung Cancer Society. They give presentations on statistics about smoking and cancer among Asian Americans."

According to the Asian American Network for Cancer Awareness, "Vietnamese men have the highest rates of liver cancer for all racial/ethnic groups." In fact, the network was created due to findings that documented the "unequal burden" of cancer incidence and mortality that is carried by the Asian American population.

Sanford Jeames is involved with VEYS in an advisory capacity. A community health educator with the American Cancer Society, Jeames has a background in working with underserved ethnic populations. After working with Thu Hoang Pham, the program coordinator of the Vietnamese Health Project at Mercy Hospital, working with VEYS was a natural progression.

"These kids are from first generation [parents]. Smoking is a part of their culture. A lot of adults worked in tobacco fields. They are around tobacco and it becomes a part of what they do," Jeames explained.

Hao Pham agreed. "I came to America when I was eight. Back in my country the elders would smoke. When guests come to the house they would offer chewing tobacco or a pipe. It was a sign of respect."

As a part of the campaign, VEYS members distributed about 200 smoking assessment surveys to those 20 years of age and older. So far about 148 have been returned and when all are collected, the data will be evaluated by a Massachusetts Health Foundation researcher.

Jeames estimates that 5,000 to 7,000 Vietnamese live in the Springfield area, so he doesn't want to stop his work at VEYS.

"My intention is to also go to some other existing Vietnamese organizations in Springfield," he said.

Pham is grateful for the growth the grant provides.

"This grant has really helped me learn their potential and visibly see their ability to be leaders. There are a few of them who have never really stood up to take leadership positions that have stood up [to do just that]. It's very inspiring," Pham said.

VEYS members meet every fourth Sunday at St. Paul's Church in Forest Park. VEYS is a local chapter of the national organization with branches in Canada and Australia. Pham said its mission is to help youth keep and retain their Vietnamese culture and be good Christians in the community.