BOSTON (SHNS) – At their first in-person “Kick Butts Day” since 2019, student leaders and public officials with a youth anti-smoking program emphasized how nicotine use can relate to stress, and looped in mental health care as a priority.

The 84 network, a Department of Public Health program, has more than 50 local chapters in middle schools, high schools, and community groups, and says it also “uses a racial justice lens to understand and address tobacco-related inequities.”

It was named “The 84” in 2007 because, at the time, 84 percent of high schoolers in Massachusetts did not smoke cigarettes. As of 2021, according to the group, the number of non-smoking high schoolers had shot up to 97 percent.

Nicotine vaping has skyrocketed in recent years. One of The 84’s youth leaders, Evyenia Georges, said she is confronted daily by “haze-filled bathrooms.” She said she also sees her peers “struggling with mental health,” and observations about her community motivate her volunteer work.

Addressing the kids in Great Hall, Health and Human Services Secretary Kate Walsh said she has focused throughout her career on integrating physical and mental health treatment. “The reasons we do things come from multiple different stresses in our lives. And I think for young people, there’s so much more stress in your life these days. Things like tobacco and nicotine, or maybe other substances, are ways that you cope. And this united work to try to ease those stressers in addition to reducing the instance of people starting on some of these addictive substances is just incredibly important to all of our future,” Walsh said.