By Kim Walter
STRASBURG -- Middle school students in Shenandoah County kicked butts this week as they participated in an anti-tobacco campaign.
Sponsored by the county's Family Youth Initiative, the week is part of the nationally recognized Kick Butts Day, which was held Wednesday.
The Family Youth Initiative sponsored Kick Butts Week last year, but only at one school. This year, the campaign reached out to all three county middle schools as well as one high school. Each middle school, with the help of its Family Youth Initiative student group, chose a personalized theme which came through in posters, special dress-up days and morning announcements of tobacco facts.
North Fork Middle School chose "Say NO and Kick Butts!" while Peter Muhlenburg Middle School went with "Kick Tobacco Out!"
Students at Signal Knob Middle School chose "Roundhouse Kick Tobacco Out!" as their theme.
Students at the Strasburg school were visited by members of Family Youth Initiative on Wednesday during their lunch periods for a quick presentation on the financial aspect of tobacco use.
Katie Mercer, outreach coordinator, said that the previous year's campaign focused on the harmful ingredients found in tobacco products. This year, the campaign decided to shift to comparative costs to help students understand how many facets of life are affected by tobacco use.
Mercer, standing in front of about 20 students, held up a box of cereal and a picture of a pack of cigarettes, and asked which product cost less. She did the same with other groceries. She also compared the cost of a carton of cigarettes to the cost of filling up a tank with gas.
"I think the most surprising thing is when they find out that an iPod shuffle costs less than a carton of cigarettes," Mercer said. "It's totally something they can relate to, and especially at this age I'm pretty sure they'd rather have the iPod."
Two three-dimensional figures were also available for students to inspect - a black lung and 'Mr. Gross Mouth.' The mouth had a variety of ailments that illustrated a variety of mouth cancers, as well as tooth loss and gum recession.
"At this point, the kids know that smoking is bad for their health. They get that," Mercer said. "But they're young and not really thinking about long-term effects, so we want to use other methods to show just how much tobacco can effect."
A number of young students walked up to the presentation table and began talking about tobacco use in their families.
"My mom smokes those cigarettes," one said, while another student said that her "parents smoke too much."
"It's really hard to hear the kids talk about wanting their parents or other family members to quit," Mercer said. "It's great that they want to stop the habit and not get into it in the first place, but you have to wonder how easy it will be for them as they get older."
To Mercer's surprise, a number of students asked about electronic cigarettes, and if they were a better option.
"We want them to realize that those are for people who are trying to break the habit ... not something you get started on," she said.
In early 2012, the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey was administered to Shenandoah County seventh and eighth grade students. The survey touches on a number of activities that could lead to issues in students, including tobacco use.
According to the results, 15.1 percent of seventh graders had tried a cigarette at least once in their life. However, by ninth grade the percentage went up to 38. Students also admitted to trying smokeless tobacco and cigars, but the numbers were much lower.
"It's crazy the difference that those two years can make," Mercer said. "That's why it's important that we keep repeating the message and giving them support at this age. It still all comes down to peer pressure, I think, but we want to them to realize that a majority of their peers actually aren't using tobacco."
Mercer noticed that plenty of students came up to her display already voicing anti-tobacco feelings, which was encouraging. Students were given the option to sign a large banner, which meant they were pledging to stay tobacco free. A number of colorful names and smiley faces covered the banner after the first of Mercer's three presentations.
"We just hope that the feeling will continue," she said. "I'm sure there are some kids who won't sign because maybe they've tried it and they feel guilty ... but it's not too late. These kids are so young ... at least they're growing up during a time that is shifting its idea of tobacco to more negative, almost taboo."
For more information on the Shenandoah County Family Youth Initiative, go to shencofyi.com, or search FYITeens on Facebook.
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org