QUEENSBURY, N.Y. (NEWS10) – In the summer, it’s not unusual to find teenagers hanging out at the mall. On Thursday at Aviation Mall, a horde of teenagers were doing just that – but these teens came with a message.

Over 100 young people visited the mall on Thursday as part of the “It’s Not Just” program, a youth initiative to bring awareness to not just the risks of teen smoking, but the other substances that can lead young people down a path hazardous to their health. They wore teal shirts, using a color commonly associated with menthol products; they worked on a mural with signatures from supporters; and they spread the word that the organization’s name is all about. The message: Menthol is “not just” a flavor.

“We’re here to educate the public on why menthol is bad for you,” said Jay Meyyan, of East Greenbush. “More than 54% of smokers who are teens smoke menthol because it’s easier to start and harder to stop.”

Meyyan and his peers were originally set to bring their message to Shepard Park in the village of Lake George, only to be diverted to an indoor backup by threats of foul weather on Thursday afternoon. That didn’t cut down the enthusiasm. On the side of the mall including Planet Fitness and Dick’s Sporting Goods, several teenagers worked on a large piece of public art spelling out “NY” for New York across the floor in front of JC Penney.

The visit came in conjunction with the Reality Check Youth Summit, held from July 11-14 at SUNY Adirondack. Every year, teens around the state who are interested in being advocates against smoking come to learn about the tobacco industry, and how young people people addicted.

“I saw statistics online that so many teens are smoking,” said Meyyan. “We as youth will not stand down to big tobacco.”

A banner by It’s Not Just, advocating against smoking, inside the Aviation Mall in Queensbury, N.Y.

Some of the youth in attendance are involved with It’s Not Just for more personal reasons. Organizer and public relations manager Dianne Patterson says that many of the young people who become advocates against smoking are those who have seen relatives become addicted, sometimes with fatal results.

Menthol stands out for It’s Not Just because it’s been exempt from some decisions regarding addictive substances. A 2009 U.S. Food & Drug Administration decision to ban all flavored cigarettes did not include menthol. The “easier to start, harder to quit” mantra comes from the fact that menthol soothes throats, while menthol cigarettes contain a high level of nicotine.

Thursday’s visit served as a way for the youth advocating against menthol to get their feet wet in the world of advocacy – and the mission doesn’t stop there. The organization seeks to meet with lawmakers to advocate for menthol cigarettes to be added to the list of banned flavors. New York State Gov. Kathy Hochul proposed that very action earlier this year, but the effort was struck down. The group also seeks to better educate the public on who is being advertised to the most.

“In the African American community, of those who smoke, 85% smoke menthol nationwide – because of the crazy targeting,” said Patterson. “If you look into some of the underserved communities, there will be three times the amount of tobacco advertising in a small convenience store versus in the suburbs. California has a menthol ban, and California and New York often lead the way, so we’ll see.”

Youth conduct mock interviews, speaking about the dangers of smoking, at the Aviation Mall in Queensbury, N.Y.

A mural on a table at the mall has been gathering signatures – and is going to be taken on the road. The group plans to bring the mural to Buffalo, Rochester, and elsewhere around the state, gathering names and hometowns as it moves. When the It’s Not Just organization heads to the Capitol for Legislative Education Day on Feb. 6, 2024, the mural will come along for the ride, acting as proof of how many people across New York want to see menthol cigarettes stricken from the shelves.