Armed with new information on middle school smoking rates, local educators and health officials hope to track the effectiveness of anti-tobacco programs.
Across the city of Lawrence, elementary students are taking part in an exercise program aimed at giving their lungs -- and their minds -- a workout.
After running in place for half a minute, the children clamp their noses shut and try to breathe through a coffee stirrer. The lesson: smoking can, and does, cause respiratory problems such as emphysema.
In the program, Students Teaching About Tobacco (STAT), high school students speak about the health and economic setbacks of smoking to fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students.
STAT is one of several programs in Lawrence schools, including Drug Abuse Resistance Education, that buttress anti-smoking messages woven into the regular curriculum. In the wake of recent statewide and local surveys that show tobacco use among middle school students rivals cigarette smoking rates among adults, anti-tobacco advocates say it's just as important to "just say no" to tobacco as it is to steer clear of illegal drugs and alcohol.
From experimentation to habit
The 1999 Kansas Youth Tobacco Use Survey, conducted by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies, tracked the tobacco-use habits of more than 1,100 middle school students from 34 schools. The report doesn't break out results from specific counties, but at least one class from the four Lawrence middle schools participated in the random survey in the spring of 1999, KDHE officials said.
According to the survey, the cigarette smoking rate almost doubles between the sixth and eighth grades, and overall tobacco use is just over 20 percent, compared to the 22.7 percent of adults in Kansas who smoke.
Lawrence eighth-graders are lighting up at similar rates, according to a school district survey in April that showed 23 percent had a cigarette in the month prior to the survey.
"The key is to stop that youthful use and experimentation of tobacco before it becomes a lifelong tradition," said Mary Jayne Hellebust, executive director of the Kansas SmokeLess Kids Initiative Inc., part of the Tobacco Free Kansas Coalition.
"You do that several ways, through enforcement, cessation programs and school- and community-based programs, and a massive public education campaign that protects the child from becoming a pediatric statistic," Hellebust said.
Health officials say the 1999 Kansas Youth Tobacco Use Survey is the first statewide look at tobacco use among students as young as 11 years old, and subsequent surveys will track the effectiveness of anti-smoking programs.
"When you look at the adult rate of smoking, you have to realize that 90 percent of those adults began smoking before they were 18," Hellebust said. "Your tobacco companies get their customers from the ranks of children. The study shows that four in 10 students want to stop, but they are already addicted to the substance, and that is really frightening."
Diane Ash, prevention specialist for the school district, educates students and parents on the consequences of certain choices students make, whether it centers on sex, drugs, alcohol or smoking. She said the recent surveys point out problems and attitudes about tobacco that need to be addressed, but it's important to remember that current programs aren't failing to reach children.
"The challenge is that you never know what those figures would have been with no prevention programs," Ash said.
Several Central Junior High students quizzed about smoking before and after this week were quick to name other students who smoked, but few were willing to admit to the habit themselves.
One girl, a 15-year-old ninth-grader, said she started smoking at the age of 11. A former western Kansas resident, she began smoking as part of a group of girls.
"It was like an initiation thing. We all wanted to do something, and we had this little club," said the girl, who stopped for a year but estimates she smokes about seven cigarettes a day now.
She's heard about all the health risks, from cancer to diseases that hamper breathing, but continues to smoke.
"It's just a habit, because I've been doing it for so long," she said.
Ash implores parents to talk with children about smoking, and stress the health risks involved.
"We have many parents who are concerned about their children smoking, but some attitudes are, 'Well, at least it's not something worse,'" she said. "That kind of response is not the most helpful way to go. Parents need to be concerned if their kids are smoking. Their children are willing to sneak, hide and lie to accomplish using this chemical."
-- Chris Koger's phone message number is 832-7126. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.