Central students promote tobacco-free schools

Courtney Copp, 17, in green, explains materials for an anti-tobacco campaign at Central High School in Woodstock to other high school seniors — from left, Morgan Hitt, Julia Sigler and Jaileen Oliveras. The event was organized through a grant from Y Street that promoted a tobacco-free campus. Josette Keelor/Daily

WOODSTOCK — Around Virginia, students in high school organizations have teamed together in an effort to end teen dependence on tobacco.

The effort is funded by grant money from Y Street, the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth’s statewide volunteer movement. But at Central High School in Woodstock, students are proving it doesn’t take a movement or a whole team of people to make a difference. It only takes one interested individual.

Zach Warfield, a 16-year-old junior at Central, isn’t part of the school’s Family Career and Community Leaders of America team that applied for and received grant money from Y Street in exchange for promoting the organization’s tobacco-free schools initiative.

But that didn’t stop him from taking the lead on a cause he said he didn’t know was so important until he learned more about it.

On the lookout for a cause that he might join, he said Y Street’s 24/7 Campaign for national Kick Butts Day on Wednesday spoke to him.

Leading a healthy life is something everyone should strive for, he said. That’s why quitting a tobacco habit or never even starting is a message he wants to back.

“Being healthy is key,” he said.

Senior Courtney Copp, 17, FCCLA vice president of membership, helped Zach organize the effort under the leadership of family consumer and sciences teachers Raelyn Hamilton and Holly Roberts.

Central is already a tobacco-free campus, Roberts said, and as students at Central are starting to realize, smoking is not conducive to living a healthy life. But eradicating tobacco use among teenagers and those they love isn’t as easy as they would like it to be.

Despite decades of non-smoking campaigns offering up grisly images of blackened lungs or satirical photos of animals smoking under the headline “It looks just as stupid when you do it,” tobacco persists in persuading Americans of its coolness factor.

It’s a dilemma not lost on 18-year-old senior Emma Schechtel, 18, who said peer pressure to smoke is alive and well in schools.

“I kind of feel bad that they still can’t get away from it,” she said at a Wednesday rally where students challenged each other to commit to a day without tobacco use.

“It’s so much of a habit,” she said. “I would just really wish that they would quit.”

On the stage in the school’s cafetorium, pledge cards asked students to support the school division in prohibiting the use of all tobacco products and electronic cigarette devices “anytime, anywhere, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”

The cards also asked for direct messages from students who support the 24/7 campaign, which offers more information at its website, 247campaignva.com.

After signing pledge cards, students were encouraged to vote for the winner of a poster design contest to become the new face of the school’s non-smoking campaign.

For senior Morgan Hitt, 18, it was easy pledging to the campaign, since he never tried smoking before and hates the smell of cigarette smoke.

Fellow senior Julie Sigler, 17, also detests the smell, but said even second-hand smoke poses a secondary risk to her asthma.

And the long-term risks of lung cancer, mouth cancer and cancer of the throat, larynx, esophagus, pancreas and stomach can’t be ignored either, said Schechtel.

“Nobody wants cancer,” she said.

The majority of teens should know or at least suspect the risk of smoking or chewing tobacco, said Gerod Blue, coordinator of Y Street, which also promotes campaigns that fight childhood obesity.

But with more knowledge on the dangers of smoking comes an increase in companies finding other ways of promoting tobacco, he said. Young people might not know the risks posed by smoking tobacco through a hookah pipe, he said.

At the website http://preview.tinyurl.com/3grz62u, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes hookahs as water pipes used for smoking specially made tobacco products that come in various flavors like mint, cherry, chocolate or cappuccino.

Y Street’s (dis)tasteful campaign has taken aim at flavored non-cigarette tobacco products that tried luring in more young customers with products that look and taste like candy.

But that doesn’t mean a teen’s environment and family situation won’t effectively blur the lines between truth and perception, Blue said.

Nationwide, 90 percent of adult smokers say they started before the age of 18, Y Street explains in its promotional materials.

Helping explain this on Wednesday to other students was Carly Bokanyi, a 19-year-old senior and member of the FCCLA, who was inspired toward action after realizing the health effects smoking will have on family members.

Friends of hers at other high schools also smoke, and she said the evidence of a habit that has gripped teens and their families litters the ground at high school football games.

“It’s not a good reason to die at a young age.”

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com