School nurse Patricia Kelleher shows off one of the anti-tobacco… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
It's no ordinary children's book, this tome called "Huff and Puff" by Patricia Kelleher, a nurse in the Anne Arundel County public school system.
A homemade, hand-illustrated paperback, its pages stand 3 feet high. Its story turns the Big Bad Wolf into a chain smoker. By the last page, that fearsome figure is as harmless to others as Little Bo Peep.
The old wolf's nasty habit, it seems, has so defiled his lungs that he can't blow anything down.
"The [main] question in the story, of course, is 'Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?' " says Kelleher, the longtime school nurse at Freetown Elementary in Glen Burnie. "By the end, even the kindergartners know the answer: Nobody!"
How do you convince a child never to take up smoking? It can't hurt to lay out the facts: that using tobacco leads to cancer, emphysema and gangrene, that it kills 5 million people around the world each year and that it costs more than $2,000 every 12 months just to support a pack-a-day habit, among other filthy truths.
But if you hope to reach people between 4 and 17, as the Anne Arundel County Department of Health does during its annual Tobacco-Free Kids Week starting Monday, you'll do what Kelleher does: Come up with methods so vivid they'll leave a mark stronger than stink in the drapes.
"I use [ideas] that attract their eyes, that involve them, that affect their senses," says Kelleher, who will use "Huff and Puff" and other teaching tools in more than a dozen schools next week, all as part of an initiative that will reach thousands of young people over seven days. "It's the best way to reach our goal — to nip [smoking] in the bud."
Plenty of cultural forces work against people like Kelleher, and they take effect early: advertising that targets the young, films and TV shows that still glamorize smoking, peer pressure.
Even after years of heightened education about the dangers of tobacco, more than 60 percent of movies show a lead actor smoking, according to a 2007 Dartmouth College study, and that fact alone hooks a thousand American teens a day — about a third of whom will die of some smoking-related illness, the study reported.
"Adults who [smoke] almost always got started in high school or earlier," says Catrice Downs, administrator of Restoration Community Development Corp., an Annapolis nonprofit that has taken part in Tobacco-Free Kids Week since 2002. "We believe it's important to give the fundamentals [about] not smoking early in life so kids can make better choices as they get older."
Restoration Corp., which mentors grade-schoolers and teens, will again join dozens of elementary, middle and high schools — as well as Scout troops, church groups and other community organizations — in hosting anti-smoking activities.
As of last week, 136 organizations had registered for the optional program.
Each will have the chance to stage activities using materials from the Anne Arundel County Department of Health through its program, Smoking Stinks.
In any participating school, nurses might do something as simple as station themselves in the hallway and hand out neon-colored "Smoking Stinks" pencils or as dramatic as passing around one of the department's most talked-about props: a real pig's lung that's infested with cancer cells.
"Just getting [the pencils] makes you start thinking about the issue," says Brittney Baldwin, 10, a Glen Burnie fourth-grader who will be experiencing Tobacco-Free Kids Week for the fifth time. "Did you know tobacco has bug killer, DDT, tar and other poison in it? It can cause damage to your heart, your lungs and your brain. It makes you wonder why people get started in the first place."
The educators' goal, of course, is to spark conversation, trigger questions, turn stomachs — in other words, do anything that might bring to the fore a simple but crucial question: Smoking might seem cool, but what are the real consequences of doing it?
The health department tries to raise the questions in the language of kids, and facilitators say that works.
"It's best to avoid lectures. Kids learn by seeing and doing," says Archie Trader, recreation director at the Stanton Community Center, a county cultural and educational agency that has taken part in Tobacco-Free Kids Week for years. "You don't want them sitting back. You want them involved."
Trader was planning to have students design anti-smoking T-shirts, and Downs had already given hers a chance to see and feel a pair of props she'll be using: replicas of human lungs.
The "healthy" one was soft and pink, the "smoker's" one rigid and blue.
"The kids here are sensitive and very, very smart. Some of them just started shrieking. That's a good start," she says.
According to studies by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, "hard-hitting education and media campaigns" are one of society's most effective weapons against smoking.