Cessation education

Chico State grad hopes to boost local anti-tobacco efforts with national fellowship

Samantha Warfel recently traveled to Richmond, Va., for the first of three seminars offered by the Truth Initiative Youth Activism Fellowship.

Samantha Warfel recently traveled to Richmond, Va., for the first of three seminars offered by the Truth Initiative Youth Activism Fellowship.

Photo by Howard Hardee

As a tobacco prevention specialist for the Butte County Office of Education, Samantha Warfel goes to local schools to spread information on smoking and health to sixth-graders. She’s 22 years old but looks younger, which is often an advantage when reaching out to teens and preteens. Making a connection can be as simple as understanding social media.

“The kids think I’m 16, so they listen,” she said. “We can connect on a lot of the same levels.”

Warfel was born and raised in Lake County, but said she fell in love with Butte County during a visit and decided to move here for college. It took her less than a year to land the job with the BCOE after graduating from Chico State with a degree in health sciences. She was hired by Bruce Baldwin, a student health and prevention program manager.

“Of all the people I’ve hired, she’s by far the best hire I’ve ever had,” he said. He’s worked at the BCOE since 1995.

Baldwin is not the only one impressed by Warfel. In August, she was chosen to become part of the Truth Initiative Youth Activism Fellowship, a year-long program that will take her across the country to learn about the latest in anti-smoking advocacy and policy. Founded in 1999, the Washington, D.C.-based group—previously called the American Legacy Foundation—was the first anti-smoking organization in the U.S. It researches and disseminates tobacco facts, often via nationwide ad campaigns they’ve run since 2000, but also directly to politicians and other decision-makers.

The fellowship includes three seminars—one in Richmond, Va., another in Washington, D.C., and a third in an undecided location. Warfel will learn from experts in community engagement and interact with other 18- to 24-year-olds who share a passion for tobacco prevention. They will work together on projects that address gaps in funding and tobacco prevention programming between different economic groups. They will also gain understanding of American subcultures and how tobacco has influenced them, as well as leadership skills they can take back to their communities.

Anti-smoking programs in Northern California have historically faced a number of challenges, says DeAnne Blankenship, project manager of Smoke-Free North State, an anti-tobacco group based in Butte County.

For instance, her organization and the California Lung Association are the only agencies that regularly offer grants north of Sacramento. “So, everything else north of here, they don’t have any anti-tobacco funds,” she said. And though rural areas usually have high rates of smoking, the total number of smokers doesn’t come close to urban areas—and that affects how grant money is allocated.

“For schools, the funding mechanism is pretty difficult,” she said. “The amount of money per student is so low. They have few students because they are rural rather than urban. It ends up costing three weeks of someone’s time that would essentially provide $4,000.”

Funding for anti-smoking efforts has taken a plunge statewide, she said, mainly due to a decrease in revenue from California’s tobacco tax.

“Essentially, if you want to quit smoking and you have a difficult time, the only place you have besides the California Smokers’ Helpline is going online and sort of just Googling places. A lot of people need more than that. They need social support and a social system that will help them quit.”

Local anti-tobacco efforts did get a recent boost, however. The California Department of Public Health awarded Butte County $150,000 for tobacco-control educational programs and measures to combat secondhand smoke.

Warfel may be able to help, too. The Truth Initiative fellowship is extremely competitive, Baldwin said. Last year, only 30 people were chosen nationwide. He was confident that Warfel was up to the challenge and suggested that she apply.

“They saw the same thing I saw in her,” he said.

The training she will receive would cost the county tens of thousands of dollars if it wasn’t covered by the fellowship, Baldwin said. For her part, Warfel considers it a great opportunity and was extremely excited to learn she had been chosen. “The first thing I did was text my boss,” she said. “Then I called my mom and cried on the phone with her.”

Fellows have opportunities to propose community projects for funding and support from Truth. Warfel isn’t ready to share her ideas, but Baldwin hopes that, through her experience with the Truth fellowship, she’ll be able to address the inequality between urban and rural research here in the North State.

“We totally get the short end of the stick on a lot of things,” he said.

Warfel agrees, adding that the discrepancy needs to be recognized and that youth in Butte County need to be better informed. “I think we need to work on educating youth in a way that empowers them as leaders,” she said.