Students campaign against smoking Eighth-graders help warn younger pupils

June 11, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Struggling to breathe through a straw to simulate the effects of emphysema, 9-year-old Joe Bolden learned all he needed to know about smoking yesterday.

"You shouldn't smoke because it makes it hard to breathe," said the Rockburn Elementary School fourth-grader. "It will kill you."

That's exactly what Kids Against Tobacco -- a group of eighth-graders from Mayfield Woods Middle School -- wanted Joe to learn, as the group took its anti-smoking message to an elementary school for the first time.

Students from both Elkridge schools joined what has become a countywide campaign against smoking, from Howard County's strict smoking restrictions for restaurants and bars to the school system's policy of notifying police when students are caught smoking.

In an hourlong lesson to all of Rockburn's fourth-graders, the Mayfield Woods students talked about the dangers of tobacco and showed the younger students how it would hurt their ability to exercise.

The idea is to take the glamour out of smoking while the children are still young.

Almost 16 percent of Howard high school seniors who report smoking say they started by the time they left elementary school, according to the 1994 Maryland Adolescent Survey.

"They're going to stop listening by the time they get older, so we've got to do it now," said Becca Wechsler, 14, a Mayfield Woods eighth-grader. "Once you hit middle school, it's too late."

Rockburn Principal Earl Slacum agreed.

"I very seldom hear of any kids in elementary school smoking, at least around here -- but they do start hearing the messages and seeing older kids doing it," he said. "It's important to teach them now."

According to the 1994 survey, one in 20 Howard sixth-graders had reported smoking a cigarette in the month before the survey.

The figure was almost four times that for eighth-graders, and about a third of Howard high school seniors said they had smoked within a month of the survey.

"Smoking in middle school is a big problem, worse than anybody knows, but it's not everyone who does it," said Mayfield Woods eighth-grader Johnathon Madison, 13. "We need to tell these kids that not everyone smokes."

The 13 Mayfield Woods students started their campaign against smoking in March after they attended a statewide meeting for teen-agers on the dangers of tobacco. As the only Howard students to attend the meeting, they decided to turn their knowledge into a lesson that could be taught to elementary students.

Students at many other Howard middle schools participate in other anti-smoking education activities, said Mamie Perkins, the school system's coordinator of health education. Many such activities are at least partially funded through a Maryland State Department of Education grant.

In yesterday's lesson in Rockburn's gymnasium, the Mayfield Woods students were clad in black T-shirts that said "Say No to 'Cancer Joe' " -- a reference to the "Joe Camel" advertising that anti-smoking activists say targets children.

They put the Rockburn students through a carefully crafted lesson plan designed to tell -- and show -- the hazards of smoking.

The Rockburn fourth-graders jumped rope and did a shuttle-run relay to learn the value of exercise. They then breathed through a straw to mimic the effects of emphysema, a lung disease linked to smoking. The students ended the lesson with a "Smoking drags you down!" cheer.

Yesterday's lesson was helped by the similarities in age between students and their student mentors.

"They're hearing it from their peers," Perkins said. "They just think that the middle school students are so cool, so they're going to listen."

As Mayfield Woods health education teacher Debbi Lange put it: "The message isn't coming from the 'dumb' adults, it's coming from the 'cool' kids."

Rockburn fourth-grader Toni Johnson, 10, endorsed that approach.

"It was better hearing it from them," she said. "The teachers teach us all year, but they're here just for this. It's good to have them for a day."

Pub Date: 6/11/96

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