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Health Department 'pledge banner' focuses on reaching young people

The Baltimore Sun

Amber Frisby, 17, a senior at Howard High School, lost a grandfather to lung cancer. She was 2 when he died, so she does not really remember him, but she learned something valuable from him. She learned to avoid cigarettes.

Although her parents smoke, she never started, she said.

Shawn Baker, on the other hand, has been smoking for about a year but has decided to quit.

Both signed an anti-smoking banner last week at Howard High as part of a Howard County Health Department effort to get young people to stop smoking or never start.

"Part of it is raising awareness, and part of it is peer pressure," said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the county's health officer, who attended the event, asking students questions or offering encouragement as they signed the long banner.

Throughout the nation Wednesday, schools and municipalities held events for Kick Butts Day, an anti-smoking program started by Tobacco Free Kids in 1995.

This year, as in the past, schools throughout Howard County held no-smoking events, such as poster contests or concerts. What is new this year is that the Health Department, while supporting those programs, took the lead in starting one of its own, said Nasseem Roohi, health educator for the county's tobacco-control program.

The county opted for a "pledge banner" that was signed by students at Howard High and Howard Community College. The banner will be kept by the Health Department and used for other events, Roohi said.

Beilenson said the goal is to get young smokers to quit and to persuade nonsmokers not to start. Studies show that a person who reaches the age of 19 or 20 without becoming a smoker is unlikely to start, he said. He hopes to bring similar programs to more schools, he said.

"We want to really raise the awareness," he said.

In Howard County, studies show that more than 13 percent of middle school and high school students use cigarettes, and more than half of the county's high school seniors have smoked at least one cigarette.

At Howard High, dozens of students signed the banner during their lunch break, though some students teased others, saying they were signing even though they smoked.

A table next to the banner held pamphlets with information about the health risks of smoking and how to quit. Students who signed were given a cup filled with items such as pens, a rubber bracelet and lollipops. Some teens put the rubber bracelets on their wrists right away, while others seemed more interested in the lollipops.

Some students simply wrote their names. Others, like Frisby, wrote messages. "You lose loved ones when you smoke," she wrote.

Frisby said she chooses not to smoke. "I think it's nasty," she said. "It stains your fingers and teeth, ... and it causes you to age faster than you're supposed to. I want to stay young as long as I can."

Lisa M. de Hernandez, director of public information for the county Health Department, said Frisby's concerns are typical. Teens generally do not worry about the long-term health risks of smoking, she said, but "you can talk to them about the stinking clothes and stinking hair and yellow teeth."

Junior Shane Smith, 17, wrote, "Shane does not smoke anymore." He had been smoking a half-pack a day since he was 16, he said, but quit about three months ago. What was his incentive? "My mom," he said. "She discovered it, and she told me to stop or I wouldn't be able to drive again, so I stopped."

Shawn Baker, also a junior, started smoking at 15 and quickly reached a pack a day, he said.

"I just thought it was cool," he said. But he found that his friends didn't like it, and that he was "losing his breath" when playing football or basketball.

Shawn said he smoked his last cigarette Tuesday morning.

It's been difficult, he said, but he is determined.

"I'm quitting," he said. "I really am."

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