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Teen activists a rising force against smoking

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As fog and dusk descend on Pacific beaches nearby, 15 teenagers in clogs and T-shirts scurry into the warmly lit city council chambers next to the town green. Snagging the first three rows of plush seats, they hoist their message on placards: "Don't let smoking knock you out." Eight-foot-high Plexiglas tubes filled with 13,000 cigarette butts gathered from nearby beaches tower over their heads.

One steps up to an open microphone: "We have come to explain how important a beach smoking ban would be to our community," says Ellie Erpenbeck, a 17-year-old senior at Newport Harbor High School. The teenagers cite statistics on health and environmental costs while handing a stack of signed petitions to the row of suit-and-tie councilmen ensconced behind an elevated oak rostrum.

Where sneaking a smoke in school restrooms or behind the family garage used to be a rite of rebellious adolescence, a growing number of teens are targeting smoking, along with other social issues, as a way to effect change for the better in their communities.

With 75 percent of young people disapproving of smoking one or more packs a day, the anti-tobacco issue heads a long list of issues that social researchers say is igniting activism among teens. Among them: air pollution, forest clear-cutting, pesticide use, drunk driving, teen pregnancy, and alcohol abuse.

Fed by their own moral outrage that grownups have dropped the ball, and that real-life policymaking is not only an opportunity but a duty, teenagers are making a difference.

"There has been a resurgence of high school activism and advocacy across a wide avenue of issues coast to coast," says Christine Kelley, a political scientist at William Paterson University in New Jersey and author of a book on social movements. "More and more teens are trying to end the image of youth as complacent and unengaged. They want the world to know they are a force to be reckoned with."

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