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Her mission: Healthy kids taking a stand against tobacco

Nikki Ross-Inda, center, created the Moffitt Healthy Kidz Program, which educates underserved youth and their families through activities addressing mental and physical health.  [Times file photo]
Nikki Ross-Inda, center, created the Moffitt Healthy Kidz Program, which educates underserved youth and their families through activities addressing mental and physical health. [Times file photo]
Published Nov. 13, 2014

Nikki Ross-Inda likes to carry around a plastic container full of thick, brownish liquid.

A child might mistake it for Aunt Jemima syrup, but Ross-Inda intends to make sure kids understand the "jar of tar" — the approximate amount of tar that passes through a smoker's lungs each year from smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day — represents one of the 4,000 chemicals contained in cigarettes. Sixty of those chemicals are known to cause cancer.

"I tell them it's the same tar that we use to pave streets, that we drive our cars on, that you ride your bikes on, that you skateboard on," Ross-Inda said.

The prop is just one of the tools she uses when she speaks to schoolchildren in her role as creator and coordinator of Moffitt Healthy Kidz, a signature healthy lifestyle program provided by the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute.

As speakers prepare to venture into schools for next week's Great American Teach-In, Inda-Ross is asking one favor of everyone who will be in front of a class: hand out pledge cards asking kids to promise to be tobacco free.

"I've been smoke free for 16 years and I wish that there was someone who did what I do now when I was young," Inda-Ross said. "Maybe if there was someone when I was in school, maybe I would have never picked up a cigarette.

"I simply did not know the dangers growing up."

These days, kids seem to be more aware of the dangers. Cigarette use among middle and high school youth continues to decline, but hookah usage among the same population is increasing. It's still a relatively small percentage overall, but statewide it rose by 38 percent in 2012 and 55.8 percent in 2014, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Kids believe hookah smoke is safer, but some experts believe it's not. More research needs to be done because it's relatively new to the United States. Still, Inda-Ross remains committed to decreasing tobacco use among youth. Many of the children Inda-Ross speaks to refuse to raise their hands when she asks, "Is it right for kids to smoke?" But when she asks whether it's right for adults, some kids raise their hands.

She emphasizes that the pledge cards are not a promise to her, the teachers or the principal. It's a promise they make to themselves.

"Smoking is one of those things that's a choice," Inda-Ross said. "My goal is that when kids are presented with the opportunity, they'll recall the things they learned in school and make the healthy choice."

On the pledge card is a 2009 photo of teens who took the pledge. It includes three students — Kayla Rivers, Gabriela Colon and Janelle Barrera-Ikan — who have remained smoke-free and accompanied Inda-Ross when her organization received a proclamation from the Hillsborough County Commission on Thursday.

November is National Lung Cancer Awareness Month, and Inda-Ross saw it as a perfect time to talk to kids about tobacco dangers. And it remains dangerous. It's the No. 1 cancer killer, having taken more than 11,000 lives in Florida alone in 2013.

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Community partners have been receptive to the idea of distributing the pledge cards and delivering the message about tobacco dangers. WTMP-AM 1150 personality and Hat-Attitude nonprofit founder Ebone "Cruz" Clifton promised to take the cards to all six schools where she will speak.

"It's so gratifying because I can't do this on my own," Inda-Ross said. "I can't reach the number of kids I want to reach without having community partners."

A pledge card may seem too simple for kids to grasp, a passing gesture that will get lost somewhere between memorizing lyrics from a Taylor Swift song and watching the latest episode of Pretty Little Liars. But with candy-flavored cigarettes readily available in convenience stores, hookah lounges on the rise and the marketing that continues to target youth with sexy ads, we can't rest.

As a man who lost his mother to lung cancer, I'm never going to be one to diminish prevention programs. The lives we touch today may be the lives we save tomorrow.

That's all I'm saying.