At a ceremony to celebrate the passage of "Tobacco 21" in Ulster County, brothers Tajh and Kyleel Iniguez said it was hard to watch their uncle slowly ruin his health by smoking.
"By the time I was 14 or 15, he had developed stage four throat cancer," Tajh Iniguez said in an interview on the front lawn of Ellenville Regional Hospital Thursday morning.
The brothers wish their uncle never started smoking. They feel the same way about some of their peers.
The brothers decided to use their evolved perspective on this tobacco use to launch an education campaign aimed at students, and by speaking at public meetings in support of the "Tobacco 21" legislation. They stood right by Ulster County Executive Mike Hein as Hein signed into law the measure to raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco in the county to 21.
The law goes into effect on January 1, 2019.
Ulster is the 11th county in the state to pass such legislation. New York City also has a "Tobacco 21" law.
After signing the legislation, Hein gushed about the Iniguez brothers, saying they have a special role in this campaign against tobacco use.
According to the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network, about 77 New Yorkers die each day from smoking (28,200 deaths each year), and 95 percent of adult smokers started smoking before age 21.
Tajh, 19, is not surprised to hear that. He said he often gets asked by his underage peers to buy them cigarettes, and it gives him chills everytime.
He became slightly emotional when talking about how one of his friends approached him with that request.
"Eventually, I did tell him, 'No,' " Tajh said. "But the mere fact that he asked me -- it's hard."
Kyleel Iniguez said it is crucial that more teenagers speak loudly and publicly on this issue, because public information campaigns -- while effective -- are not as personal and influential as peers.
"We're just two ordinary teenagers from the 'ghetto' standing here with important people, making laws," Kyleel said, using air quotes when he said "ghetto."
After the signing and the celebration, a representative from the Cancer Action Network personally invited the brothers to become advocates for their action group, since "there's much more work to do" on this issue in the county and state.