Many cigarette smokers start the habit early in life, but a new high school program aims to nip that trend in the bud.
The Merced Union High School District received a $369,763 grant from the state Department of Education to begin a three-year program called Project Stomp Out Smoke. Several approaches will be taken to discourage youthful smoking and give those who smoke a structured way to quit.
"I'm thrilled to finally have some resources to start systematically tackling the problems of tobacco use," Kelly Bentz said. "We want more kids to understand how harmful (smoking) is."
Bentz is the district's program administrator for child welfare, attendance and safety. This is the second year she applied for the grant, which uses Proposition 99 tobacco tax money. The voter initiative included a 25-cents-a-pack tax for smoking prevention programs. It was passed in 1988.
Never miss a local story.
Ray Abarca is in his third week as SOS program director. He taught health, geography and U.S. history last year at Merced High School. This year his job is to help change the ninth-grade health class curriculum to incorporate research-based anti-smoking material and craft voluntary tobacco cessation programs for those who want to quit.
A biannual survey taken by many of the district's 10,000 students at Merced, Atwater and Livingston high schools showed 5 percent of the juniors smoked daily during the past 30 days. Thirty-two percent of juniors said they had experimented with cigarettes.
"For students in the district, as of now there is no program set up to stop smoking," Abarca said. "We're hoping with ninth-graders we will educate them so they won't start in the first place. But if they do, they know there will be resources to take advantage of to quit."
Students know smoking is bad for them but do it anyway, Bentz said, adding that tobacco use is a gateway drug to other substances.
Darren Leonardo is a drug and alcohol intervention specialist at the East Campus Education Center. Previously a campus liaison at Atwater High School, he will complete an associate of arts degree in addiction studies this semester at Merced College.
Leonardo worked with about 30 students a year who had drug and alcohol issues and nearly all of them smoked.
Bentz said upper-grade students in leadership positions were surveyed and said they lacked the tools to help friends and loved ones quit smoking.
The district has a zero tolerance anti-smoking policy. Abarca said he's exploring setting up computerized smoking cessation programs for students caught smoking, rather than sending violators home through traditional suspensions.
Bentz said it's a struggle for students to say no to friends when they want to light up, but she hopes they will be training the next generation of anti-tobacco advocates.
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or email@example.com.