Anti-smoking program for teens gets results
MASONVILLE -- The burley harvest in Daviess County, a multimillion-dollar ritual, coincides this year with a different kind of tobacco-related event -- an attempt to stamp out tobacco use among schoolchildren.
For some students at Beacon Central Alternative High School, that means passing around a plastic bag with a blackened lung removed from a smoker.
Or a pop bottle with goo representing a year's tar intake for a pack-a-day smoker.
``The kids get real grossed out about it,'' said Lura McElhearn, a student assistance coordinator for Daviess County schools.
But most of the students are cigarette smokers confronting their taste for tobacco.
``It's a reality check for them,'' said Richie Duke, youth service center coordinator at the school. ``They really question their habit.''
The program now under way at Beacon Central soon will be extended to the rest of the Daviess County district, as well as to Owensboro Independent schools.
The program has two parts -- eight weeks of classes on the effects of tobacco use, followed by eight more weeks of tobacco-cessation training, which is voluntary.
Ideally, the entire program is voluntary.
But students who have been caught with tobacco at school are required to attend the class on tobacco's effects, an alternative to suspension.
``When kids are suspended, they are just going to smoke and they are not getting help for their addiction,'' said Ellen Hahn, an anti-smoking activist who is an associate professor in the University of Kentucky's College of Nursing and a tobacco-prevention researcher for the state Department of Public Health.
The lessons are informal, taught away from classrooms.
Students settle into cushy sofas in an open area next to a guidance counselor's office.
The talk can be frank, as teen-agers acknowledge tobacco use.
They watch videos in which longtime smokers talk about their respiratory illnesses.
They breathe through straws with tiny airholes to simulate the effects of emphysema.
Hahn said the dual programs have spread to middle and high schools in several Kentucky school districts and have shown promise.
Kentucky is the nation's top burley tobacco producer.
It also ranks consistently among the leaders in the percentage of young smokers.
But Hahn said studies indicate about 12 percent of students in the education program, and about 16 percent in the cessation program, quit smoking.
``It's a myth that kids don't want to quit. They do, and we need to have programs like this to help them quit,'' Hahn said.
In all, some type of research-based tobacco prevention program is used in about 40 percent of middle and high schools, both public and private, in Kentucky, Hahn said in citing a statewide survey.
Research-based programs are those that have been effective in reducing tobacco use.
Lynn Carol Birgmann, executive director of Kentucky ACTION, a coalition of anti-smoking groups, praised the school-based programs but said a more comprehensive approach is needed to curtail smoking.
Birgmann advocated a higher state cigarette excise tax and allowing communities to enact tough ordinances designed to keep cigarettes out of youngsters' hands.
Kentucky's cigarette excise tax, 3 cents per pack, has not been raised in more than 20 years and is second-lowest in the nation.
``Tobacco use in this country is a pediatric disease,'' Birgmann said, noting that 85 percent of all smokers became hooked before adulthood.
Burley tobacco generates $8 million to $10 million for farmers in Daviess County, said Wayne Mattingly, the local agricultural extension agent.
But tobacco farmers want their product used by adults, not youngsters, he said.
``You wouldn't find any opposition to a youth non-smoking program in agricultural circles,'' Mattingly said.
The anti-smoking push among students signals a big change from the time when local high schools set aside smoking areas for students.
Duke said that as a student at Owensboro Catholic High School in the mid-1980s, he would look out the window at lunch and see small groups of students lighting up.
``They gave up their lunch to smoke,'' he said.
Now students spend school time trying to kick their addictions.
At Beacon Central, Principal Donna Lanham estimated that as much as a third of the school's 161 students use tobacco.
Advisers in the tobacco-prevention programs avoid confronting students.
The weekly sessions, lasting 90 minutes, are meant to help students make informed decisions, school officials said.
``They aren't being preached at. They are being told the facts,'' said Angela Bell, a student assistance coordinator at Beacon Central.
Youthful confessions are made during the discussions.
Some students say they smoke two packs daily.
Some light up as soon as they wake up.
Many started smoking as middle schoolers.
In the cessation program, students learn about ways to give up tobacco.
Stress management is taught, a recognition that many students smoke to relieve stress.
Weight management is discussed for students worried they'll gain weight if they quit smoking.
Hahn said the education and cessation programs help students gain confidence they can quit smoking, a big hurdle in beating an addiction.
Beacon Central, along with Owensboro High and some middle school students in the Daviess County system, took part in a pilot program last spring.
Three youngsters quit smoking, and some cut a two-pack-a-day habit in half, officials said.
``That is a significant improvement,'' Bell said. ``So maybe six months down the road they are smoking half a pack a day. It's taking it day by day.''