Project Prevention: Students try to stamp out smoking at BV schools
By Kelby Newcomb
The Project Prevention Anti-Tobacco Youth Coalition is trying to stamp out smoking at the Berryville School District.
Junior Ella Pruente and freshman Shelby Newby said the club’s work has included providing educational materials on smoking, particularly to younger children.
“We do a lot of activities, especially with the younger kids in the school district,” Pruente said, “because hopefully they haven’t really gotten into anything yet. If you pre-warn them about all these things, they can know better whenever they’re going to make that decision.”
Counselor Tiffaney Atkinson, who sponsors the club, said the activities have included reading to children in kindergarten through fifth grade for Red Ribbon Week and holding contests and activities that educate children.
“Right now we’re actually doing a picture coloring contest,” she said. “The theme is ‘Tobacco is a monster,’ so the kids make their monster and explain why tobacco is a monster. For the smaller kids, it’s just one or two sentences, and for the older kids they might write a paragraph.”
Atkinson said two winners will be selected, and they will get to have a pizza party with the Project Prevention members. She said the club is also trying to get the middle school involved with a writing contest, “My Reason to Write” that asks students to describe the ways they can live tobacco and nicotine free.
Newby said one of the biggest things Project Prevention has done so far is present some of their findings on smoking and e-cigarettes to the Berryville School Board at its December meeting. She said the club proposed that school resource officers (SRO) issue a fine to students after their third tobacco infraction, and the board said it would have to wait until next year to officially update its policy in the school handbook.
Pruente said they approached the school board about a new policy because the influx of JUULs, a type of e-cigarette, has led to a 78 percent increase in vaping at the high school this year. One of the problems, she said, is that JUULs resemble jump drives and can be used discreetly, even during class.
“It looks like a flash drive, and you can charge it in your computer or in a car charging port,” Pruente said. “The smoke is almost undetectable. You can see it if you’re super close and someone is making it obvious, but a lot of kids get away with blowing it into bottles or into their shirts.”
A lot of companies are presenting JUULs as a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes or vaping, she said, when it isn’t any safer.
“One JUUL pod contains 20 cigarettes worth of nicotine,” Pruente said.
Atkinson said many of these products are marketed at teenagers and children. She said many of the JUUL pods are candy-flavored in order to draw in younger users.
“The surgeon general has recently requested the tobacco companies to provide a plan,” she said, “essentially on how they’re going to change their marketing and implement some kind of strategy to prevent it from being marketed to teens and young students. They didn’t give a deadline on that.”
Atkinson continued, “If they can’t document and show that sufficiently to the surgeon general, a law is going to be put into place where they can’t make those sweetened versions — the flavors marketed toward kids.”
Many of these sweetened products have a chemical called “diacetyl” in them, she said, which is incredibly harmful when smoked.
“The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved diacetyl to ingest,” Atkinson said, “but they have not approved it to be breathed in. These kids are inhaling this chemical not realizing what exactly it’s doing to their body.”
She continued, “Several years ago in a popcorn factory, a lot of the workers got very sick and were dying. After the investigation, they figured out it was because they were inhaling that diacetyl, so they call that ‘popcorn lung.’ ”
The accessibility of JUULs has led to an increase in tobacco-related infractions at the middle and high schools, she said. Last year, there were zero incidents at the middle school and 20 incidents at the high school, Atkinson said. As of Dec. 7 this school year, the middle school has had five infractions and the high school has had 17, she said.
“A couple weeks ago we had the very first incident in fifth grade,” she said. “It’s awful. It’s gotten worse, specifically at the middle school. In the past week alone, they’ve had three incidents.”
Atkinson said Project Prevention has set up booths at sporting events to inform the community about JUULing and plans to start it at the beginning of the year next school year.
“Probably the hardest thing we’re up against is the community,” she said. “It’s a culture. We have a lot of older gentlemen who come to our games to support the students and the high school, and they’ve always been allowed to smoke and use other tobacco products. A lot of them just don’t know that it’s now a law and is illegal, but some know and don’t agree with it.”
At the end of the day, Atkinson said the Berryville School District is an educational institution and seeks to promote healthy development and living for its students.
“When it comes to giving fines to those who consistently break the law, that’s another battle with it,” she said, “but we’ve got to do something. Giving out data and information isn’t going to hit someone hard until you hit their pocketbook.”
Pruente and Newby said they both joined Project Prevention because they’ve seen the negative consequences of smoking in their own lives.
“For me, pretty much my whole dad’s side of my family smoked,” Pruente said, “and it’s always grossed me out. My grandpa got really sick, and he ended up having to get his leg amputated as a result of that. He couldn’t go throughout the day without coughing. My experience with it has been really bad.”
“The reason I joined is because I’ve always been that kid who has never done any of that stuff,” Newby said. “I thought it was so sad that everyone does that and thinks it’s OK. I’ve seen what stuff like that does to people. My grandma got cancer from smoking and died from it. The doctors told her to stop, and she didn’t.”
She said she hopes Project Prevention can educate students and save some people from ending up like her grandmother did.
“I think the biggest goal is influencing the younger kids in middle school and below,” Pruente said, “to make the decision to not smoke, JUUL or vape whenever that opportunity is presented to them. We can’t really do anything to high schoolers now who have been doing it for years, but if we can reach the younger kids they may never start.”
Atkinson said the club even has members who joined in an effort to stop smoking themselves.
Pruente said that level of information and education is one of the best aspects of the club.
“I know all this stuff is bad for you, but you learn the exact effects it has on your body,” she said. “I know exactly what to say to people. If they listen or not, that’s their choice. Used to, young adults would start and wouldn’t see the effects until their 50s or 60s. But kids are starting younger now, and the younger they start the sooner they’re going to get like that because of those effects and medical problems.”