McCracken County High School junior Abigail Hefner was awarded the 2020 Healthy Kentucky Policy Champion award Monday in a brief ceremony at the school.
The award program recognizes individuals and organizations who work to improve the health of those in their communities or the entire state through policy change.
The award was presented by Dr. Patrick Withrow on behalf of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.
Withrow is the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky director and the director of outreach for Baptist Health Paducah. Withrow himself was a 2018 Healthy Kentucky Policy Champion.
“The committee elected Abby, recognizing her tremendous accomplishments over the past several years,” he said. “Abby became aware of the addictive nature and explosive popularity of nicotine-containing pods on teens and preteens.
“She was one to stand up and say, ‘There is a real problem here.’ Not only did she identify a problem, but she felt the need to identify it to students, parents, teachers and policy makers of the growing issue of nicotine addiction.”
Hefner said she has been presenting programs about the dangers of vaping and using e-cigarettes for two years, since she was a freshman. She knows the dangers firsthand, as she was addicted to those products herself.
“I got started (talking against e-cigarettes) when I realized that it was a problem within myself and then began to recognize it through many of my peers and many of my friends,” she said. “Then, I started by writing a letter to the editor (to The Paducah Sun on Nov. 1, 2019), and it snowballed from there.”
Hefner said she used e-cigarettes for about a year.
“While I was using, I’d have constant headaches just from the product itself,” she said. “It’s not intended for teenagers, and our brains are not ready for that, but it’s something that many people are doing.
“Throughout trying to quit, the withdrawals were absolutely mind-blowing, like the headaches you would go through and, honestly, the mood swings were incredibly difficult to deal with, especially for the people around you.”
Hefner said she was forced to quit using e-cigarettes when she was separated from them.
“I was able to quit when I went out of town for the summer,” she said. “I was kind of cut off. I had tried to quit before, but when I was cut off, it made it a lot easier.”
Hefner has appeared before the Kentucky Legislature and visited New York City and Washington, D.C., to make her case on the dangers of e-cigarettes. She has made presentations to classes at MCHS to help them avoid e-cigarettes without becoming addicted to them.
“From the feedback I’ve received, I feel like it’s been a pretty powerful message,” she said. “It seems to have impacted a lot of teenagers. All of the adults have been extremely supportive of me, and it’s just been incredibly eye-opening to me to see how, when you’re doing something good, people are easy to stand behind you.
“It’s incredibly humbling to me just to see what a little 15-year-old’s story — how big it can get and how much of an impact I can have, just with my own story — not even including hundreds of thousands of others, just mine alone — and how far it can get.”
Hefner is the daughter of Jeff Hefner of Paducah and Ashley Hamilton of Richmond.