Fighting back tears, Jennifer Westmoreland talks about her son Noah.
“He was as perfect as a 17 year-old could be, and I’m not just saying that because he’s mine.”
She said he would give anyone the shirt off of his back or the last dollar in his pocket if it meant he could help. He was just that kind of person.
Noah Smith died Sept. 26, 2014 because of excessive caffeine use.
The caffeine caused him to have cardiac dysrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat. No underlying health issue was found during the autopsy.
Between the stress of a job and school, the Water Valley High School senior decided to use caffeine pills, which he could easily buy off of grocery store shelves.
Smith had only taken four pills over the course of two days — two on Thursday and two on Friday, the day of his death. It was as the box directed, Westmoreland said.
One 200-400 milligram pill, like the pills Smith took, is equivalent to two to four cups of coffee or five sodas. The Food and Drug Administration warns consumers that the products are 100 percent caffeine and one teaspoon of caffeine is about the equivalent of 25 cups of coffee.
“They look on the side of the box that says it’s worth two cups of coffee and think you’ve never heard of anyone who dies from drinking two cups of coffee,” Westmoreland said.
Over-the-counter substances like this are widely unregulated throughout Mississippi. Westmoreland wants to change that in her son’s honor.
Since less than a month after Smith’s death, his mom has been campaigning
During the 2015 legislative session, state Rep. Tommy Reynolds authored the bill. It passed the House of Representatives with major support. Then it reached the Senate, where it would later die, having never been introduced to the floor.
After Noah’s Law died at the state level, Reynolds reached out to the attorney general to see if cities and counties could pass the bill within their jurisdictions. The attorney general gave it the OK.
Reynolds said since then about 14 jurisdictions have passed their own Noah’s Law.
“That means it has not gone in vain,” Reynolds said. “I think it ought to be statewide, but you do what you can do. I’m hopeful for more in the future, but we have made progress.”
Oxford’s Board of Aldermen and Lafayette County Board of Supervisors both voted to ban the sale of caffeine pills and powders to minors in September 2015. Any caffeine pill or caffeine powder with more than 25 percent caffeine falls under the ordinance, and customers must be 18 years or older and show proof of age to purchase such products. It’s similar to the regulation on cigarettes.
Westmoreland said these laws are like small victories, but that isn’t enough. She said she is disappointed in the Legislature and believes Noah’s Law should be statewide.
In the 2016 legislative session, lobbyists played a large part in blocking the bill from being passed in the Senate.
Oxford’s Mississippi House Rep. Jay Hughes said it seemed as though the soda industry is what killed the bill in the Senate. He said from his understanding the argument in the conference was that there was fear the bill would be a gateway to limiting or eventually eliminating popular energy drinks.
Noah’s Law had passed unanimously in the House, which Hughes said rarely happens but changes to the language in the Senate made Noah’s Law only regulate caffeine powders. The pills that Westmoreland said had led to her 17-year-old son’s death were no longer mentioned.
The bill died in committee.
Hughes said Noah’s Law will come back up in the 2017 legislative session and he will do everything in his power to make sure it passes. He said he believes there are others on both sides of the aisle who will, too.
“If it saves only one life, then it’s worth it,” Hughes said. “If it saves one child’s life, it’s worth it. That’s it.”
Although the 2016 legislative session has ended and there are still months before the 2017 session begins, Westmoreland is still campaigning all over Mississippi.
Westmoreland said she wants more of the community, especially at the University, to get involved, including Greek life, because a lot of people pay attention to Ole Miss.
“I know the sororities and fraternities want to do good in the community,” Westmoreland said.
She said she’s not exactly sure in what capacity the groups can get involved, but she is sure there is some way for them to take action, whether it be something like hosting a fun run to raise awareness or another event.
She said she is always open to hearing people’s advice or ideas, whatever can help push the effort along.
Westmoreland said she is just trying to help others so this doesn’t happen to them or their families.
“I want people to think about what they put in their body before they do it,” she said.
The battle isn’t over. Westmoreland keeps a Facebook page, “Support Noah’s Law,” updated, and she and her parents will continue to travel and speak at meetings throughout the state.
She said she isn’t giving up, and obstacles like the lobbyists just give her more passion to keep fighting.
“I don’t want another parent to have to go through what I went through,” Westmoreland said. “What I’m still going through.”
– Lana Ferguson