That’s what first-year student Katherine Klem has to say about the state of tobacco regulation. Read what she’s doing about it.

By Leslie Atchley (English '05)

Photo by Jack Mellott.

“This is unacceptable.”

Talk to Katherine Klem (College ’08) about tobacco regulation in America, and you’ll hear this phrase regularly. “Twelve hundred Americans die every single day [from tobacco-related disease]. This is unacceptable,” Klem says with conviction. “Seventy percent of smokers want to quit but only 3 percent find long-term success. To me this is unacceptable.”

Klem is the founder and nationwide president of Ignite, a youth advocacy movement for tobacco control. In the three years since its creation, Ignite has grown from a loose network of a few dedicated young activists to an incorporated non-profit organization with a board of directors and 1,000 members across the country.

Ignite is not an anti-smoking campaign, Klem emphasizes. Its purpose is to “pressure politicians to hold the tobacco industry accountable.” One goal of the organization is to combat advertising targeted at youth, who are considered by the industry to be the most important customers of tomorrow.  “We have to communicate to our peers what the tobacco industry has done to youth for decades: making a deadly and addictive product and marketing to us very aggressively,” she says.

The issue of tobacco control hits close to home for Klem, who grew up in Louisville, Ky., home of a major tobacco company in a very tobacco-friendly state. In early high school she organized two lobby days to encourage the state legislature to increase excise taxes on cigarettes, which has been effective in curbing youth smoking. Four hundred teens participated in the first event, and 800 attended the second. “It was incredible,” Klem recalls. “Literally overnight the state was talking about it. It was a great accomplishment — it really got the public debating the issue.” Though it took some time, their efforts paid off: the bill passed in Kentucky’s most recent legislative session. 

Klem was studying the Seneca Falls Convention for a high-school history class when she realized there had never been a national conference for young tobacco control advocates. She went downstairs to talk to her mother about it, and the idea soon morphed into a plan to create a more permanent organization to bring interested youth together to take action. There, at her kitchen table, Ignite was born.

In 2002, Klem was selected as the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids’ National Youth Advocate of the Year. She spent a year traveling the country to meet with other young activists to organize and launch various legislative campaigns. Her travels connected her with students who shared her passion for advocacy and who would form the early membership of Ignite.  But serving as a spokeswoman required substantial sacrifices — she missed 47 days of her junior year of high school. “I was doing calculus on planes and hotel rooms,” she says, recalling the sleepless pace of that year. “But it was amazing. I learned so much about our generation, about activism and advocacy, and most importantly I saw what an intense influence tobacco companies have on our political process.”

In addition to her schoolwork and extracurricular activities, Klem spends 20 hours per week on Ignite business (“just about every hour that I’m not studying or sleeping” she says). Ignite chapters across the country are currently lobbying for indoor smoking bans, increased excise taxes and FDA regulation of tobacco products. The organization is continually adding new chapters at the state, city, college and high school levels. Klem is considering taking a year off to volunteer full-time for Ignite, but in the meantime, she never thinks twice about giving up her free time to her cause. “To have such a passion and to have such an exciting opportunity through which to channel that passion is a huge blessing,” she said.  “It makes all the time I do spend here on Ignite completely worthwhile.”