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Teens offer information on dangers of tobacco

Joe Camel may seem cool to some kids but the fourth-graders at Tarpon Springs Elementary School know better. They know the cigarettes he champions leave behind gooey, sticky black tar caked to the lungs.

Definitely not cool.

Most of the students had a pretty good inkling smoking is not good, but a recent presentation by a group of teens from the medical magnet program at Palm Harbor University High helped them realize just how dangerous tobacco can be.

The anti-tobacco campaign, Students Teach Students, was developed by the American Lung Association about 10 years ago. About 21 Palm Harbor high sophomores and juniors have received the training so far. Since the Palm Harbor program was initiated a year and a half ago, the medical magnet students have reached nearly 800 fourth-graders.

Equipped with a head full of facts, anti-smoking information and photos of cancer-laden organs, the teens head into north county elementary schools.

Two of the biggest attention-grabbing props are a glass jar filled with molasses, the same color and consistency of tar, and a lung-shaped piece of yellowed foam that reeks of tobacco.

"Gross," the fourth-graders replied as the items were passed around the room.

"Smoking can you hurt, I knew it before, but I didn't understand how it affects your lungs," said 9-year-old Nathaniel McFarlane, a student in Bonnie Adams' class. "My dad smokes and it makes me scared. I'm going home and tell him to try and stop."

In between questions from their attentive students, the teens relayed facts about tobacco addiction, cancer, heart disease, the impact on the environment and the cost.

"Can you imagine what you could buy in 10 years with all that money not spent on packs of cigarettes?" Stephanie Shrum told the students.

The hourlong presentation ended with nearly each of Adams' student getting a chance to participate in a "say no" skit and the signing of tobacco-free commitment cards, posters and stickers.

The idea behind Students Teach Students is to link younger pupils with someone they look up to, such as a high school student, said Bev Mellow, community partnership coordinator for Morton Plant Mease Health Care who trains the students.

"We try and select a cross section of teens because we want every child out there to be able to relate to one of them. That's really important when you are trying to reach a 9-year-old," she said.

If you ask the fourth-graders, it seems to be working.

"It's better to hear about what happens to you if you smoke from someone closer to your own age because you know they are not just saying it to be saying it," said Jennifer Israel, 9. "Usually adults tell you stuff like that but they smoke so it doesn't mean too much."

Although the teens participating in Students Teach Students receive no school credit or volunteer hours, the experience they gain will go a long way, Mellow said.

"For the teens, the most important aspects are the leadership skills, self-esteem and pride they develop while working with kids," she said.

They also learn to react in a positive way to some unusual questions.

"We get some off-the-wall questions and comments. We don't know all the answers, but we try our best," said Ryan Anderson. "I just want the kids to know smoking is bad. You see kids who start smoking and they just go down the tubes, pretty soon they're smoking marijuana. Smoking really affects their life. I just want to see these kids benefit from what we are trying to teach them."