MASCOT Members Urge Teen Tobacco Possession Law

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Jessica Hernandez learned in health classes that cigarettes were bad for her, but it wasn't enough to stop her from smoking.

She said she didn't fully realize what cigarettes were doing to her body until after she got a ticket for underage smoking at age 16. She was ordered to go to a twice-weekly tobacco awareness class, where she saw sobering pictures of smoke-damaged lungs and got support for kicking her habit...

Deondae' Henderson, an 11th grader, commenting on school prevention classes, "We learned about cigarettes, but it was just another lesson. We knew it was bad for you, but I didn't know until later that it caused cancer."

Jessica added that until she was sent to the tobacco awareness class, she had never paid much attention to the lessons in school. She said she was more influenced by family members who smoked as a way of dealing with stress.

Later, when Jessica found out she was pregnant, she knew her smoking days were over for good. "I didn't want my son to see me smoking and think it was all right to smoke," said Hernandez, now 19, a University High School senior.

Of course, the dangers of smoking have been well-established for decades and have been taught in public schools. So why aren't kids getting the message?

Federal studies show that youth smoking decreased in the 1980s but regained their ground in the '90s. In 1999, federal surveys found that 34 percent of high school seniors admitted to smoking in the previous 30 days, about the same rate as 1979. "Anybody can tell you tobacco is detrimental to your health," said Tara Kimbell, a health educator for the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District. "A kindergartner or an 80-year-old can tell you that. But are people not spending enough on getting the message out? I think that's possibly it."

Despite winning a multibillion-dollar settlement from the tobacco industry in 1998, the state of Texas has yet to invest the kind of money on tobacco education that federal health authorities say is needed to lower its youth smoking rates.

According to a recent study by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and other health advocacy groups, Texas ranks 39th in the nation in using tobacco settlement money to protect children from tobacco.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that Texas spend between $103 million and $285 million per year on tobacco prevention, or between $5.31 and $14.65 per capita. Texas is spending only 64 cents per capita, or 12 percent of the CDC's minimum recommended amount.

Carter Headrick, Texas spokesman for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the state so far has missed its opportunity to use the tobacco settlement money to do a statewide tobacco prevention campaign.

Headrick said the status quo in tobacco education is inadequate, and getting the message out will take more more money. "The traditional method of tobacco prevention is that for one or two days in school you have a coloring contest about tobacco," he said. "You put a couple of days and a coloring test against $8 billion a year in tobacco marketing, and I can tell you what kids are going to do."

Under the 1998 tobacco settlement, Texas was promised $17.3 billion over 25 years, beginning with $1.3 billion in 1999. The state set aside $200 million from the settlement to create an endowment for tobacco prevention, spending only the interest from the endowment, which comes to about $10 million a year.

The Texas Legislature last year agreed to spend an additional $5 million a year on prevention, but with falling interest rates, the total amount is only about $12.5 million a year. Public health groups had pushed for at least $60 million a year for a statewide tobacco program.

Instead, the state is only funding pilot programs in 14 East Texas towns such as Beaumont, Port Arthur, Longview and Texarkana. Some pilot areas have comprehensive programs, while others only have a specialized tobacco program. For example, Waco will participate in a pilot study, but only for smoking cessation.

In Port Arthur, where the most comprehensive campaign was launched three years ago, the results have been striking, said Dr. Phillip Huang, head of the Texas Department of Health's tobacco program. A January 2001 survey in Port Arthur showed that since the program began, the numbers of sixth- and seventh-graders who admitted to smoking in the previous 30 days had fallen 40 percent.

"We are working, we are showing some effect, but it takes resources," Huang said. "When you do have a coordinated comprehensive program, you can have results." Huang said that what is needed is a multi-pronged approach that includes antismoking programs in schools and civic groups, active enforcement of underage smoking laws, media campaigns and smoking cessation programs.

McLennan County schools already offer some special tobacco education programs to supplement what children learn in their health classes.

The American Lung Association sponsors occasional antismoking programs in local elementary schools. For the last two years, the countywide health district has sponsored a program called "Keep Tobacco Away from Kids," or KTAK, in which high school seniors talk to fourth-graders about smoking, using games and role-playing to get their point across. About 500 fourth-graders a year from across the county go through the program.

"The thing we like about it is that it reinforces for high school students what they've learned about tobacco, and it makes a large impact on the fourth-graders," said Kimbell, the health educator. But Kimbell said what's still missing is a comprehensive curriculum that reaches kids from kindergarten through high school.

An aggressive tobacco education program could make an impact, according to a group of nine University High School students interviewed this week by the Tribune-Herald . The students, including several smokers and ex-smokers, generally agreed that they should have been given more information about tobacco before they reached middle school.

"We learned about cigarettes, but it was just another lesson," said Deondae' Henderson, an 11th grader who said she experimented briefly with cigarettes in seventh grade. "We knew it was bad for you, but I didn't know until later that it caused cancer."

Jessica Hernandez said that until she was sent to the tobacco awareness class, she had never paid much attention to the lessons in school. She said she was more influenced by family members who smoked as a way of dealing with stress.

"I think the main reason I started to smoke was that I had problems I couldn't solve and I wanted something to relax me," she said. "I didn't smoke just to fit into a crowd. I had a lot of things on my mind."

Likewise, Tinyka Jones, 16, said her family had much more of an influence than her school on her decision not to smoke. >"My mom, before she had me, used to smoke, and she told me all the things she went through trying to quit," she said. "So I already knew the consequences of smoking. I knew I didn't want to do it. I've overcome too much to want to do drugs or alcohol or smoking."

Tinyka, who is in Shannon Walden's health occupations class at University High, said what really opened her eyes was a recent trip her class took to a conference about tobacco. She said she learned about nicotine addiction, the dangerous chemicals that are inside a cigarette and the marketing tactics of the tobacco industry lessons that she said all students should learn.

"I think we should work on teaching people before they get a chance to start," she said.

Source: Waco Tribune-Herald
Date: Saturday, February 2, 2002
Author: J.B. SMITH Tribune-Herald staff writer
J.B. Smith can be reached at or at 757-5752.