May 15, 2023

Building Coalitions: How Public Health Advocate D'Jillisser Kelly is Raising Awareness to Reduce Tobacco Use and Vaping

D'Jillisser Kelly shares her journey to public health education, the importance of tobacco and vaping prevention, and how youth can use their voices to make a difference.

D’Jillisser Kelly at the HBCU Battle of The Bands Community Expo in 2023.

For decades, the tobacco industry has used menthol as a tool to disguise the harsh effects of cigarette smoke and to lure young people into becoming smokers. More than 18 million people in the U.S. smoke menthol cigarettes – and a recent study states that menthol cigarettes were responsible for “157,000 smoking-related premature deaths” among Black Americans during the period of 1980-2018.

D’Jillisser Kelly, MPH, CP, knows that reaching young people is key to tobacco education and prevention. In fact, most adults who currently smoke began smoking before age 18. As lead project coordinator with No Menthol Movement ATL, an initiative to reduce tobacco use and vaping in Atlanta and surrounding areas, D’Jillisser helps cultivate multigenerational coalitions to address the harm of menthol and other flavored tobacco products.

She shares her journey to public health, discusses the importance of tobacco education, and how youth can use their voices in the following Q&A!

D’Jillisser Kelly, MPH, CP

Q: What sparked your interest in public health and tobacco and vaping prevention?
D’Jillisser: As a youth, I was involved in programs such as Students Against Destructive Decisions to address health disparities. As I matured into adulthood, I deepened my involvement as an active wellness chairperson creating health and wellness programs in college. During my Master of Public Health program at Liberty University, I interned at the local health department where my assignment was focused on tobacco prevention. That internship led me to my position as a tobacco health educator, where I began to sharpen my knowledge on the harms and impact of tobacco on individual health.

Q: How can tobacco and vaping awareness impact health disparities and disease prevention?
D’Jillisser: Raising awareness of both tobacco use and e-cigarettes is crucial. Big tobacco companies have marketed to communities of color for many years, which has increased health disparities. Approximately 45,000 African American lives are lost each year due to tobacco-related disease – and menthol is a major factor. Additionally, the marketing of vaping and e-cigarettes targets our youth with flavors, which can harm lung function.

Through advocacy, I’ve spoken about the importance of protecting our youth from tobacco companies as they actively market to young people with new products.

Q: Tell us more about No Menthol Movement ATL. How did you get involved?
D’Jillisser: The H.E.A.R.T. Coalition (Health Education Awareness on Research on Tobacco) had the opportunity to create No Menthol Movement ATL to promote health equity by reducing the harm associated with menthol tobacco products in Atlanta and surrounding areas. No Menthol Movement ATL is a strategic initiative consisting of local and national organizations designed to restrict the sale and use of menthol products through policy solutions, community education, and empowerment.

D’Jillisser Kelly representing No Menthol Movement ATL at a Great American Smokeout outreach event hosted by Clark Atlanta University in 2022.

Q: What are some of the needs and opportunities you see in Atlanta communities?
D’Jillisser: There is a saturation of predatory marketing to vulnerable populations through dense marketing and price discounts. We have an opportunity to advocate for solutions that will promote health equity and reduce the burden of tobacco use.

Big tobacco often promotes false narratives about tobacco use and Black criminalization that are delivered by trusted community members but are paid for and sponsored by the tobacco industry.

Q: Why is it important to collaborate with organizations like Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and Healthier Generation to raise awareness?
D’Jillisser: Data has shown that 90% of adult smokers begin this deadly addiction as teenagers or earlier. As a result, youth are critical and powerful voices in the fight against tobacco. The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids has been instrumental with their youth advocacy approach and peer-to-peer training to further encourage youth not to initiate the use of tobacco products. And with the mission-driven focus of Alliance for a Healthier Generation, we can further promote healthy choices and support communities to choose best practices regarding quality of life.

Q: What advice do you have for youth who might be interested in advocating for healthier communities?
D’Jillisser: Start now! Join an organization in your school or local community as your voice has great impact to mobilize your community upward.

Q: What are you looking forward to as this work progresses?
D’Jillisser: An effective cessation program that’s designed to help communities of color quit and environmental policies that protect our youth and community from the harms of tobacco products and predatory marketing.

Q: Are there any resources you’d like to share?
D’Jillisser: Please take the time to get informed on ways that the tobacco industry has preyed on communities of color. The “Black Lives / Black Lungs” film series is a great way to start. And join the fight with No Menthol Movement ATL!

Are you an educator or caregiver who’s interested in tobacco prevention and cessation? In partnership with CVS Health Foundation, Healthier Generation has free tools to help strengthen district policies, support tobacco-free environments, and prioritize the use of restorative practices. Learn more at our Tobacco-Free and Vaping-Free Resource Hub.

Nicole Blanton

Manager, Culturally Responsive Communications | Alliance for a Healthier Generation