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Students hear convincing anti-smoking message

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New Palestine Elementary School fifth-graders breathe through straws as part of an experiment to see what it feels like to be short of breath as a smoker.

(Kristy Deer / Daily Reporter)
New Palestine Elementary School fifth-graders breathe through straws as part of an experiment to see what it feels like to be short of breath as a smoker. (Kristy Deer / Daily Reporter)

NEW PALESTINE — Fifth-graders at New Palestine Elementary School took plastic straws normally used for sipping beverages and placed them in their mouths while holding their noses. The goal was to get the students to breathe through a restricted source of air to show them how hard it is for the lungs of a smoker to work properly.

“It’s hard to breathe,” one of them said.

The experiment was part of a presentation known as “Tar Wars,” a tobacco-free education program for fifth-grade students designed to teach kids the consequences of tobacco use.

The countywide initiative kicked off last week when New Palestine High school senior Kayla Medaris, junior Stephanie Willis and sophomore Mattie Waggoner made the presentation to the NPE fifth-graders. While they were talking with students, other members of the high school’s VOICE program were spreading the same message to fifth-graders in the other Southern Hancock elementary schools.

Kayla has been part of the anti-tobacco countywide VOICE program during her four years of high school and said she thinks the “don’t smoke” message does get through to impressionable youngsters.

“I do think they get it,” Kayla said. “Sometimes, you can tell: It really does hit some of them close to home, but then they start to realize they don’t have to smoke just because someone living in their home might.”   

Brandee Bastin is the Hancock County Tobacco-Free Coalition coordinator. She started making the Tar Wars presentation at county schools 11 years ago. While she said the elementary-age students were receptive to the message, using high school students – peers the younger children look up to – has made a huge difference.

“To have older kids, kids they look up to give the message, has made the message even more powerful,” Bastin said. “When they hear it from older kids, it really makes an impression.”

Bastin said other county high school VOICE groups will be giving their Tar Wars talks in the coming weeks. Mt. Vernon fifth-graders are expected to see the presentation later this week, while Greenfield-Central and Eastern Hancock have yet to schedule it. “We’re hoping to get

those dates scheduled soon,” Bastin said.

A major part of the presentation is having the high school students explain the reality of smoking. The three high schoolers at New Palestine Elementary told the fifth-graders some harsh facts about tobacco use and even showed some grisly photos of what using tobacco can do to a person’s body.

“These kids need to be made aware that tobacco companies are targeting them and that the companies are wanting them to be their future customers, and we don’t want them to be,” Bastin said.

Having the high school students relay the message in a positive way had an impact, the students said.

“It was good,” NPE fifth grader Zack Hoyt said. He shook his head no when asked if he might think about smoking when he got older. “If somebody tried to get me to smoke, I’d like to run away.”

The high school students warned the children that tobacco products are being designed to resemble candy and showcase a good lifestyle. What that marketing doesn’t show, however, are the short-term and long-term issues, such as yellow teeth, bad breath, mouth sores and cancer.

“It can affect your heart rate, blood pressure and your circulation and can cause difficulty breathing,” Kayla told the group. “It can also affect your taste and smell.”

Fifth-grader Annie Twyford said even if saying no to tobacco cost her a friendship, she would do it. “I would turn smoking down,” Annie said.

Those are the words Bastin said she longs for all youngster to say, including her 10-year-old son Branden, with whom she was pregnant with when she gave the very first Tar Wars presentation. “This year’s Tar Wars is kind of special for me,” she said. “I joke because he said, ‘Mom, I’m so excited. I’ve been waiting my whole life to see Tar Wars.’ “

Branden was part of the audience to hear the presentation, and his mom knows he will say no to tobacco.

“He’s heard the message his whole life, but unfortunately some of these students haven’t,” she said.

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