ALEXANDRIA, La. - The U.S. Surgeon General says more than 1,200 people in the U.S. die every day from tobacco-related illness.
Some Cenla students learned that fact--and many more--today, taught by a man who calls himself, "the man without a face."
News Channel 5's Kathleen Witte was there.
Rick Bender is a nationally-known tobacco prevention speaker. But he goes by another name, too.
"They call me the man without a face," Bender says. "I think it's better, maybe, half a face?"
And he says it's all because of his battle with oral cancer, and that's all because of his early addiction to chewing tobacco.
"I started when I was 12," says Bender. "And was diagnosed with oral cancer at the age of 26, lost a third of my tongue, half my jaw, partial use of my right arm and was given two years to live. But I'm still here."
And because he is still here, Bender says he wants to spread the news--the bad news of smokeless tobacco. That's why he's speaking to more than 250 Cenla high school students at the Tobacco Prevention and Control Summit.
"It was supposed to kill me," Bender says. "Maybe this is the reason God left me here, to get out and educate our young people all across this country and hopefully they'll make a better choice than I did."
But event organizers say Louisiana youth are especially at-risk for tobacco addiction, so they want to stop it before it starts.
"There's the laissez les bon temps rouler, let the good times roll, that's Louisiana," Elizabeth Sylvest of Central Louisiana AHEC says. "So who cares about health, let's just have fun and do what feels good in the moment. And don't worry about the consequences."
And the student participants say learning the facts does have an effect.
"Hopefully a good effect," says Kaylee Basco, freshman at Simpson High School. "Hopefully if they're doing it now, they'll stop. It's not that hard to say no, you know?"
Rick Bender says that's what it's all about: giving kids the facts that he never had, so they can have the chance that he doesn't.
"I don't want to tell people what they can and can't do," Bender says. "I want to give them the information to make a decision that they're going to live or die with."
These same students will be planning the "Kick Butts Day," another tobacco prevention event in March.