Despite low state grade, Abilene tobacco educators hard at work

Last week the American Lung Association released a scathing report card for state tobacco prevention programs.

It’s the sort of thing that most self-respecting students would hide from their parents: 40 states got an F; three more picked up a D.

Texas is among the states relegated to the back of the class. The association gave Texas failing grades for tobacco prevention, smoke-free air and cessation programs. Its tobacco tax of $1.41 per pack got a D.

This national finger-wagging certainly offers some lessons and goals to shoot for. But in Abilene, organizations that work to educate locals about the perils of tobacco use say they already are seeing results from the people they work with.

Start with Serenity House, a nonprofit facility best known for substance abuse rehabilitation services. But tobacco is part of the bigger package for Kendra Tapie, director of youth prevention.

She’s a fixture in local schools, working to educate kids about what’s inside cigarettes and what years of smoking can do to the human body.

That includes teaching devices with such illuminating titles as “Black Lung,” “Jar of Tar” and “Tobacco Ball.”

Getting a firsthand look at the chemical damage caused by cigarettes gets kids invested right away, and the gross-out factor helps. Serenity House also puts on a poster contest where kids can draw up their own reasons to avoid smoking and present them to classmates.

“We want them to teach each other,” Tapie says. “Rather than us get in front of the class and say, ‘This is what you need to do.'”

In more pressing circumstances, Serenity House works to provide alternative after-school activities to kids who might not have any. It’s part of a multipronged approach to the habits that can lead to underage use of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs.

But often, as Tapie and Clack Middle School health teacher Melody Holland can attest, these habits are formed in students’ homes.

Holland grew up as the youngest of 12 children, with a mother and a group of older brothers who all smoked. It was something she always tried to avoid but couldn’t always get away from.

Now, several years into her career as a teacher, she sees many of her students in the same bind.

“They’re asking, ‘How do we get away from that? We hate to breathe this stuff. We hate our clothes smelling like this,'” Holland said.

That’s the hardest part for an educator: prompting kids to become the broken link in a chain that often stretches back for generations. The end result is never entirely within a teacher’s control.

Just as hard can be breaking adults out of their smoking habit. Ask anyone who has tried to quit: It’s a day-to-day battle with powerful urges.

Suzanne Starr of Hendrick Cancer Center handles both pre-emptive education with students and cessation assistance with adults. One could measure the difference between the two styles of teaching in miles.

Whereas most kids are eager or at least open to learning, adults can be “pretty strong-willed sometimes,” Starr said.

There’s a lot of stubborn head shaking to start with, and not everyone makes it to the finish line.

“But for the ones (who) quit, it’s the greatest feeling of joy,” Starr said.

It’s a drop in the ocean on one hand, and not the sort of small-scale success that is going to catch the eye of a national organization. But those breakthroughs keep Starr, and other educators like her, coming back to the table.


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