The collective - Breathe California, Santa Clara County Public Health Department, Yes To Youth, and Project Aegle - raising awareness on tobacco use. Left to right: Siddhi Mundra, Akanksha Roy, Pranav Medida, Arnav Konda, Aditya Indla, Margo Sidener, Martha Lara, Deanna Canales, Matthew Burns, and Ronit Kanjilal (Image Credit: Pranav Medida)

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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

As I began my high school journey, I was pondering what I could do to set myself apart, to make a profound impact for helping others. While my peers found their own niches with math competitions or specialty groups, I looked inward to reflect on my talents and interests and discovered that I found the greatest fulfillment in serving others and finding solutions to societal issues. The reality is that I was in a fortunate position to lend a hand—I just needed to find the right cause that stirred my passions and I found it when I learned more about the dangers of tobacco products!

My story, like many, took a turn with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The year prior, I had submitted my application for a pre-college summer program at Brown University, and much to my excitement was accepted. The program would help to develop my interest in tobacco cessation and provide me with the knowledge to more effectively raise awareness about the dangers of tobacco.

As concern and uncertainty about the novel coronavirus spread in the early months of 2020, I quickly began to realize that my plan would be derailed—at least temporarily. I received word from Brown University that because of the pandemic, my summer 2020 program would be canceled. With this news, however, came a promise: if during the following summer, in 2021, I still wanted to attend the program, they would hold a spot for me.

While at the time this seemed like an opportunity lost, it turned into a period of deep thought and inspiration. During the lockdown, I was isolated with nowhere to go and very little to do. I channeled my energy into the cessation of tobacco and smoking. I connected with my cousin and a few of my high school friends virtually, and we brainstormed a project called Aegle. The goal of our project was to bring awareness about the consequences and negative health impacts of tobacco and nicotine use, especially within the South Asian community.

I asked myself, how I might convince others to avoid a dangerous substance, especially when that substance was addictive? The human brain is trained to reward the body when it experiences something pleasurable; and consuming tobacco or nicotine activates the reward system in the brain to produce a “feel good” sensation that leaves the user wanting more. Consistent use of these products has been proven to lead to preventable illness and sometimes death. In a world filled with easy access to substances like these, it is important to get the message of prevention out there and educate anyone who will listen about the importance of avoiding tobacco and nicotine. As an advocate for health, wellness, and positive change, I dedicated my time and energy in 2020 to creating awareness surrounding the topic.

A time for targeted learning. (Image Credit: Pranav Medida)

In the summer of 2021, I was thrilled to attend the rescheduled summer program that was canceled the year before and studied Tobacco, Disease and the Industry: Cigs, E-cigs and More. This course, taught by Dr. Jasjit Ahluwalia and Kathryn Thompson, exposed me to the realities of how widespread the use and negative effects of tobacco and nicotine are. The class aims to help students gain in-depth knowledge about the public health problem of tobacco use and cigarette smoking, nicotine addiction, novel products, and the tobacco industry. These substances are used worldwide and are easily accessible to so many. I learned that not only smoking, but other tobacco products such as smokeless tobacco and hookah, are incredibly harmful as well.

This course also exposed me to some staggering statistics. I learned that close to 34.1 million Americans smoke or use tobacco daily, and this has resulted in more than 480,000 deaths each year. In addition, tobacco-related illness in the United States costs more than $300 billion per year. As the number one cause of preventable death in the U.S. and soon in the developing world, education and prevention of tobacco use are of vital importance.

My summer at Brown wasn’t simply the culmination of my previous work; rather, it was a launching pad for what was to come.

Local community grants make a difference. (Image Credit: Pranav Medida)

Soon after completing the summer program, I joined forces with my cousin (Aditya) and friends (Arnav) to apply for a Youth Action Project Grant through Breathe California. This program encourages youth, ages 13 to 20 from any community, to create a visual project that focuses on youth, community, health, and tobacco. With the support of our mentor Krupa, our venture Project Aegle was accepted for two initiatives, worth $3,500. The grant we earned allowed us to create a book for elementary school children that educates them on the dangers of secondhand smoke, titled Amara Goes to the Vet. We also created a successful art contest that raised awareness about the dangers of tobacco use, with 20 submissions and three winners. Thanks to Deanna Canales from Breathe California and Marina Torres from Santa Clara County Public Health Department for inspiring youth and giving us this opportunity.

For any high schoolers interested in joining a similar cause, there are several summer programs around the country, similar to the one I attended. These programs set students up for future academic and professional success and educate them on relevant real-world topics. My favorites include: Loyola Marymount University, Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes, UC San Diego Academic Connections, UCLA Summer Sessions, Berkeley Pre-College Scholars Summer Residential Program, and Brown University Pre-College Programs (East Coast).

My journey to raise awareness about the dangers of tobacco use has been incredibly fulfilling. I hope my own experience can inspire others to act and make positive changes.

Pranav Medida is a sophomore at BASIS School in San Jose. His love of reading, which started at a young age, soon grew into a love of writing. These passions took him down the path of authoring children’s books and distributing them to the needy. He hopes his writings raise awareness about the dangers of tobacco products for future generations.