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HEALTH : Program Clears the Air for Youngsters


When adults tell kids not to smoke, it may not have near the impact as kids telling other kids their teeth will turn yellow and their breath will stink if they light up.

At least that's the theory behind a new program that teaches teen-agers how to talk to elementary-age youths about the consequences of smoking and chewing tobacco.

Teens 4 a Tobacco Free Youth took off earlier this month under the direction of Ventura County's 4-H program and the county's Tobacco Education and Control Program.

Wearing T-shirts bearing the group's logo and armed with a giant inflatable cigarette, the teen-age volunteers meet once a week with about 24 younger students in a YMCA after-school program in Oxnard.

The younger children aren't harangued about the evils of tobacco. "They make their own conclusions," said Rose Haden-Smith, 4-H Youth development adviser. And the teen-agers, drawn from varied backgrounds, are left to run the hourlong sessions on their own.

"The first session was chaotic," admitted Bryan Russell, 13, of Ventura, one of the younger volunteers. "Some thought smoking was bad. Some didn't care."

As for Bryan, he isn't wishy-washy on the subject. "It's stupid," he said, adding that he was "grossed out" by his father's smoking.

Kristina Alls, an 18-year-old single mother from Oxnard, was recruited for the program because of her involvement with Friday Night Live, a county program promoting drug- and alcohol-free activities for kids.

Alls, who attends Gateway Community School, said she grew up in a family of smokers. "I can't stand smoking," she said. She thinks Teens 4 a Tobacco Free Youth will work.

"A lot of kids are open-minded and willing to listen to a younger group rather than adults," she said. "The closer to the age, the stronger the impact."

The teen-age volunteers begin by introducing the children to a fictitious brother and sister, Jason and Jennifer, who are new in school and trying to decide whether to smoke and chew tobacco. Jason thinks he won't get on the baseball team unless he chews, and Jennifer wants to make friends with a girl who sneaks off to the bathroom to smoke.

During the six-week series of meetings, the 10 teen-agers will guide the children through a series of activities aimed at gathering information about tobacco to help the siblings with their decisions.

They look at both sides. Is it cool to smoke? Does it make you feel more grown up? To illustrate the down side, they draw full-size body maps highlighting yellow teeth, bad breath, stinky clothes and cigarette burns in clothing.

The long-term risks, such as cancer, aren't emphasized as much as the more immediate drawbacks.

"If you tell a girl that if she smokes she'll get bad breath and her skin will wrinkle faster, it has a much more immediate effect," said Kathy Cook, a training and education assistant for the county's tobacco program. For boys, the impact is greater if they learn they won't perform sports as well.

One activity teaches the children that fewer young people use tobacco than they might believe--19 out of 100 high school seniors smoke daily, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. The children study tobacco ads and act out situations in which they might be offered cigarettes.

The teen-age volunteers spent one day learning the curriculum, developed within the University of California between the School of Public Health at Berkeley and the California 4-H Youth Program of Cooperative Extension. The teen-agers were recruited from several sources, including 4-H, YMCA, Ventura College and local high schools. They divided into two teams to share the teaching.

Cook and Haden-Smith hope to expand the program and offer it to other elementary-age after-school groups.

Targeting kids is essential to Cook. "Ninety percent of all smokers start before they turn 20," she said.


For information about Teens 4 a Tobacco Free Youth, call 652-6503 or 645-1470.

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