BELFAST, Maine — It may be hard for energetic fifth-graders to imagine what kind of harmful effects smoking a pack of cigarettes a day can have on the body.
But with the help Wednesday of some creative teachers at the Waldo County YMCA who had them put on weighted vests and mouth guards along with clothespins on their noses, they got a bit more of the message.
“Wow, it’s really hard to breathe,” exclaimed Zach Dyer, 11, of Belfast.
Dyer was one of 90 RSU 20 fifth-graders that came from Captain Albert Stevens School in Belfast, East Belfast School, Nickerson School in Swanville and Edna Drinkwater School in Northport to take part in the “Tobacco Education — Passport to Health” program, held on the 15th annual nationwide Kick Butts Day.
Kids went from one station to another, learning various details about tobacco advertising, secondhand smoke and the addictive effects of nicotine, among other topics.
Area nonprofit groups, including Healthy Waldo County and the YMCA’s Youth Advocacy Program, came together to make the event happen.
Guidance counselor Maureen Ferriter said that she and school health coordinator Linda Hartkopf realized that some of the anti-tobacco curriculum in the schools was a little bit underwhelming — and that’s why they helped dream up the larger event at the YMCA.
“In the past, students were coloring lungs black,” she said. “It just seemed to me that we should be able to do a lot more.”
The need for better information at an early age is great, Ferriter said.
Maine’s youth cigarette smoking rates went up in 2009 — the first increase in more than a decade, according to the American Lung Association. A study that agency released in January showed that between 2007 and 2008, self-reported rates of smoking by Maine adolescents and teens rose from 14 percent to more than 18 per-cent. In 1997, the rate was more than 39 percent.
“We thought this was the most effective age group to reach out to,” said Brandon Hurd, Youth Advocacy Program coordinator, adding that 11- and 12-year-olds are getting ready to start their period of risk-taking behavior.
Some of the students seemed to find the new information a bit sobering.
“I have learned that smoking can hurt a lot of things and everyone, so don’t smoke,” said Reyna Grotton, 11, of Belfast.
Abbie-Jo Ward, 10, of Belmont said that she learned that secondhand smoke can harm and even kill animals.
Chris Harrington, school nurse for the Captain Albert Stevens and Drinkwater schools, said many of the children have parents who are smokers — and added that educators tried to teach youths about the difficulties of quitting an addiction.
“More than one group of kids thought we ought to outlaw cigarettes altogether,” she said.
Harrington hopes that the event will have an impact.
“I hope that the kids will feel empowered and that they’ll have more knowledge,” she said. “And that the kids won’t start smoking.”