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Teen-agers spend summer telling children smoking is not cool


The pressure started when Lydia Jones entered high school. She saw all the older students smoking. Soon, her friends were smoking, her lacrosse teammates were smoking, and the cheerleaders were smoking.

The attraction never caught on for Lydia, 17. She thinks smoking is "gross and disgusting." But she knows why young people start.

"It had a lot to do with peer pressure," she said. "You're just really cool or that much better. If you don't smoke, you're just left out."

Now Lydia, along with four other nonsmoking teen-agers, is spending her summer teaching young children why smoking and chewing tobacco is not cool, even though models and baseball players do it.

Yesterday was the the first day of the Anne Arundel County Health Department's "Smoking Stinks" campaign. Lydia and her colleagues will visit 50 day camps and playgrounds in Anne Arundel County including Annapolis.

Equipped with only a self-made cardboard trivia game on smoking, and large doses of energy and patience, the teens started off the morning in front of a tough crowd at St. Claire Elementary School's cafeteria.

"Why do you think adults smoke but tell their friends not to?" Lisa St. Louis, a senior at Arundel High School, asked a group of 60 campers.

Hands shot up.

"A lot of times adults start when they are really young and then they can't stop, but they know it's bad for them," answered 10-year-old Miranda Evrard, of Atlantis, who sat at a cafeteria table in the back row, her feet dangling above the floor.

"Good answer," Lisa said, raising her voice to match the crowd. "Did everybody hear that?"

This is the first summer teen-agers have been recruited to teach the program, now in its third year. They will work about 15 hours a week and earn $5.50 an hour. For many, like Mary Alex Dundics, who helped put together a media kit for the campaign, the summer is a learning experience. Her work last year with the county Health Department helped her get into Boston College.

Lisa St. Louis said she is learning how to talk to an audience. It is a constant struggle to hold the attention of up to 70 children, who slump with their heads in their hands, kick their friends, twirl string and chatter away.

"When you come into a room, you see if they are going to be really responsive or immature and then you have to adapt to that," she said, passing around a survey on smoking as children raced past her. "You move around a lot and make eye contact. But sometimes it just doesn't work."

That approach worked at the day's second stop, where 30 children from Ulmstead Beach Camp sat cross-legged on the grass. This time Mary Alex worked the crowd.

"Who can tell me what an addiction is?" she asked, pacing back and forth near the swing set.

In the back row, the quiet voice of 8-year-old Erin Goff rose up. "Like, say you're smoking and you just smoke once and your body says, 'I want more. I want more,' " he said.

The county Health Department is trying to reach children because, according to a 1992 survey by the Maryland Department of Health and Hygiene, 40 percent of the county's eighth-graders already have smoked cigarettes. By senior year in high school, 65.3 percent have done so.

Mary Alex, 17, says most of the smokers she knows started in freshman year of high school. "It's like a new environment. It's all different, and they see all the older kids and they are trying to act older."

Lydia Jones agrees. "They see it in the movies, and it seems everybody is doing it," she said. "And if you see super models smoking, then you think maybe I'll be thin too."

The program is part of a larger cancer-prevention campaign called Learn to Live, funded by a $250,000 state grant.

By 1 p.m., the workers, weary but looking satisfied, wrapped up their third and final presentation at Windsor Elementary School. The campers said they learned a few things. Cigarettes contain 4,000 different ingredients, including honey, chocolate and, to the surprise of many, tar.

"That's nasty," said Brian Carlisle, 12, of Annapolis.

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