County devotes a week to halting tobacco use by kids

NEIGHBORS

March 11, 2002|By Sue du Pont | Sue du Pont,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ALL AROUND Anne Arundel County, teachers, students, parents, Girl Scouts and others concerned about tobacco use among minors are gearing up for Tobacco-Free Kids Week, March 18 to 24.

Children ages 7 to 13 at the Annapolis Family Support Center won a Tobacco-Free Kids Week contest last year and are excited about participating again this year. Some have finished their entries for this year's poster competition, and are getting them ready to be displayed at the center's headquarters at 80 West St.

But most important, they are getting the message about tobacco.

"They talk about it," says youth counselor Demetrius Mallisham. "They are grossed out, and are outspoken about saying `no' to peer pressure to smoke."

In its seventh year, the county Health Department's Tobacco-Free Kids Week encourages children to avoid or stop using tobacco by giving them facts about tobacco use and helping them create activities and campaigns.

Wendy Mahan, youth risk reduction program manager with the Health Department, said the main emphasis of the program is to reach kids before they start using tobacco.

"The greatest thing is that it's one big community effort, with businesses, schools and community groups getting the word out to kids."

Despite well-known health risks associated with smoking, 20 percent of county teens smoke and 4 percent use smokeless tobacco, beginning on average at age 13, according to the Health Department. In addition, 45 percent of county children are exposed to secondhand smoke at home, increasing their chances of contracting childhood illnesses and becoming tobacco users.

After seven years, the program's success is beginning to show statistically. In 1998, 36 percent of county high school seniors used tobacco. Today, 29 percent do, a marked decrease and strong encouragement to continue spreading the word.

Mahan said the program is bigger than ever this year.

"We sent out 241 planning kits, and groups have registered 122 TKF Week activities so far, up from the 107 last year," she said.

Heather D'Ambrosio, 11, a pupil at Central Middle School in Edgewater, and her older sister Samantha Ritts created plays about the dangers of tobacco as part of Davidsonville Girl Scout Troop 922's Tobacco-Free Kids Week activities last year. Before they could perform the skits for the younger girls in Brownie Troop 1557, they had to learn a lot about tobacco use.

Heather remembers that "smoking hurts your lungs, you can have a heart attack from cigarettes, and chewing tobacco can give you gum disease." Both girls pledged not to use tobacco, a keystone of the Tobacco-Free Kids Week program.

Mary Ritts-D'Ambrosio, mother of Heather and Samantha and leader of both troops, said the program is popular and successful.

"Most kids have experienced someone dying as a direct result of smoking, so it's easy to relate to," she said. "We never have enough Quit Kits. Last year, one of the girls gave her mother the kit and the mother actually quit."

Susan Comely, nurse at Southern High School in Harwood, has been involved in Tobacco-Free Kids Week since the beginning. At first, she thought high school students would scoff at the program. Another obstacle: Many of her students' families earn their livings from tobacco.

"At first, I felt like Dr. Seuss' Lorax riding into town," Comely says. "This is tobacco country. I had kids telling me this is what feeds their families, but I am not hearing it quite so much now that many of the families have taken the government option not to grow it."

For the most part, her fears were unfounded, she says: "I've been just amazed at how well it's been received."

Each year, Comely tries to do something different. Last year, students made morning announcements about Tobacco-Free Kids Week. Comely set up tables outside the cafeteria with information and displays, including castings from real lungs - one healthy and one with diseased from smoking.

Information is available, but nothing is forced on students. Materials include Quit Kits, fact sheets and other information provided by the Health Department through its Learn to Live cancer-prevention campaign.

Last year, about 75 students made pledges that were posted on the school walls. Comely hopes more do so this year. Some who have started smoking admit how hard it is to quit and question whether they can do it. Comely encourages them to try.

For fun Tobacco-Free Kids Week activities, anti-tobacco games, teen Quit Kits, and facts about tobacco use: the county Health Department's site for kids, www.smokingstinks-aaco.org.

Information about youth and tobacco that is geared to parents and other adults: www.aahealth. org/LearntoLive/TeenSm.asp.

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