A grant-funded tobacco education program has Edgecombe County teens saying “no” to smoking.
Youth Empowered Solutions (YES) awarded a $1,000 mini grant to the Tarboro-based Community Enrichment Organization to educate local teenagers about the importance of living a tobacco-free lifestyle. YES is a North Carolina-based nonprofit organization that works to empower youth to create community change.
“I talked to kids about the dangers of smoking,” said Byron Hall, youth site manager for the Community Enrichment Organization. “They (the youth) really are our future. If we’re here to help them and guide them part of the way, they’ll know that somebody does care.”
Hall handed out questionnaires about smoking to local students, held tobacco education workshops, and led students in preparing presentations about the impacts of tobacco use. Hall focused his efforts on Martin Middle School students.
“I try to catch them at an early age. They’re just at the experimental stage right now,” Hall said. Tanya Avery, mother of Blake Hart, a rising eighth grader at Martin Middle, agreed.
“Right now, they’re at that impressive stage in their life, trying to fit in, peer pressure,” she said. Hart has not been around people who smoke, but he speculates some people start smoking because it gives them a “reason to fit in.”
Avery said her son has “blossomed tremendously socially” as a result of the tobacco education program. Hart did a presentation on the health impact of smoking, including the number of deaths in the United States attributable each year to cigarette smoking – 443,000 – more than AIDS, alcohol, car accidents, illegal drugs, murders, suicides and fires combined, according to YES.
“Tobacco could give us many types of cancer – lung cancer, breast cancer,” said Hart. He said he knew you could die from smoking before going through the tobacco education program, but he didn’t know all the effects smoking could have on other people, including second hand smoke.
“You have just as good a chance of getting any disease that a person smoking would get just from inhaling smoke,” Hart said. “My little brother has asthma, and if I start smoking around him, his asthma might get worse.”
Overall, Hart said he learned how smoking could impact his life and the lives of the rest of his family down the road.
“It becomes a daily routine and it will control your life eventually,” he said. “If your kids or grandkids see you smoking, they will think it’s okay.”
Seeing the impact smoking had on her family members influenced the decision of a recent graduate of Tarboro High School, Shaquasia Thigpen, not to smoke.
“I don’t think you should smoke because it can cause cancer and you can die from it,” Thigpen said. “I had family members who died from smoking.”
Thigpen was one of 100 local teenagers who answered questions in Hall’s smoking survey, such as “Why wouldn’t you smoke?” and “How can smoking harm the body?”
To Thigpen and another survey responder, Ashley Worsley, a recent graduate of North Edgecombe High School, peer pressure is the main reason why teenagers begin smoking.
“I think it (cigarette smoking) is increasing, because some people under peer pressure, they gotta try it. They gotta try every new thing out,” Thigpen said.
“This generation now is going to try anything basically,” Worsley said. Her advice to teenagers wanting to try something new it to “talk to their parents about it and see what the effect is, before they get into a bad habit.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 88 percent of adult smokers who smoke on a daily basis started the habit by the age of 18. In North Carolina, 15.5 percent of high school students smoke, and 11,100 kids and teens under the age of 18 become new daily smokers each year, according to YES.
Worsley and Thigpen plan to pursue a career in nursing, and never plan to smoke.
“I learned that smoking is not good for your lungs; it can turn your lungs black. It gives you bad breath, and bad teeth. You spend too much money on it,” Worsley said.
“Nothing good comes out of it,” Thigpen said.
Hall said he plans to continue to educate young people about everything from tobacco use to teen pregnancy to HIV/AIDS awareness.