More than 1,000 children every day in the United States become regular daily smokers and a third of them will die prematurely due to smoke-related illnesses, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Those numbers are why the Rapides Foundation is collaborating with the state of Louisiana, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living and Patrick Reynolds to reach young people early.
"The message is simple, lead a life without tobacco," Reynolds, grandson of tobacco-company founder R.J. Reynolds, said Thursday. "Be healthy."
More than 1,000 Central Louisiana students gathered for a tobacco-free rally in Alexandria Thursday.
They were encouraged to live smoke free and introduced to a state movement to encourage all teens to stay away from cigarettes.
The students got information on Defy, a state movement to gather students to encourage and speak out on tobacco issues. It is designed for students to defy the lies of the tobacco industry, officials said.
Reynolds was the featured speaker for the event that included a dance contest among the participants.
He told the students how he lost his father to smoking at the age of 15. Reynolds explained how addictive cigarettes are and how on average, it takes a person 17 years to kick the habit.
"I encouraged them to get help if they are smoking and break the habit now," Reynolds said.
He asked that they develop faith in the future and to hold on to their health.
Breaunna Ross, 16, of LaSalle High School said she learned a lot from the summit.
"It re-emphasized not to smoke and why it is so bad," she said.
Breaunna said the event was fun and not what she expected.
"I am sure a bunch people will get behind the smoke-free movement," she said.
Hunter Farrar, a Pineville High School student, agreed.
"It can be a movement if you get enough people behind it and to follow," he said.
The 15-year-old said he learned a lot of new things about the tobacco industry and how it targets teens.
Thursday's rally was another part of the Rapides Foundation's Get Healthy Cenla Initiative, which challenges communities to improve the health of residents with a focus on diet, physical activity and tobacco use.
Students interested in joining the state's youth tobacco free movement may log on to defythelies.com.