Merced high school district works to keep teens from smoking

02/04/2014 8:14 PM

02/04/2014 10:54 PM

There are some new wrinkles in high school students’ flirtation with smoking.

More students are using hookah pens or e-cigarettes under the mistaken impression they aren’t harmful, Stephanie Neves, director of the Merced Union High School District’s Tobacco Use Prevention Program, said.

The district has anti-smoking programs underway at Golden Valley, Merced, Atwater, Buhach Colony, Yosemite, Independence, Sequoia and Livingston high schools. The district is hoping to get another three-year grant from the state Department of Education to continue its efforts to combat youthful smoking.

Val-Pierre Dai’Re, intervention specialist with the District Opportunity Center at the East Campus Educational Center in Merced, said students believe that the flavored water found in e-cigarettes can’t be bad for them.

“(E-cigarettes are) not OK,” Dai’Re said. “(Students) are always pushing the boundaries. They think, ‘Oh well, it’s flavored and can’t be that bad.’ Their mindset is if there’s something worse, then this can’t be that bad.”

Neves said students are getting caught smoking cigarettes or possessing tobacco products, violations of district policy that can get them suspended or expelled. As an alternative to expulsions, students can attend tobacco-cessation classes.

“Our numbers for student involvement are going up but I believe that is because more students, staff and parents are aware of our services,” Neves said. “MUHSD has definitely seen an incline in tobacco infractions involving e-cigarettes and/or hookah pens. They appear to be the new trend.”

Neves said two students in the district are taking tobacco-cessation classes. Both voluntarily referred themselves to the program.

Jason Schneider teaches geography and health classes at El Capitan High School. During the health classes that all ninth-graders take, the evils of smoking are stressed.

“They think more kids smoke than is actually the case,” Schneider said. “We played a game of ‘Tobacco Basketball’ and a lot of facts surprised students. They learn (smoking) potentially could have a big impact on their personal lives.”

Neves said a sophomore who was caught using a hookah pen and took a tobacco-cessation class as an alternative to suspension told her he had a lot of fun in class and learned that hookah pens can be just as bad or worse than cigarettes.

The high school district received $369,763 from the state for 2011-14 for its anti-tobacco programs. The district just reapplied for another three-year grant and hopes to be notified about the outcome in March, Neves said.

There are 13 health teachers leading the Project Towards No Drug Abuse curriculum for ninth-graders.

Freshmen and juniors were asked about tobacco use in 2009-10 and 2011-12 through the California Healthy Kids Survey. The 2011-12 results showed 26 percent of nontraditional or continuation school students have smoked some sort of tobacco product and 6 percent considered themselves daily smokers.

In the 2009-10 survey, 32 percent of nontraditional students admitted smoking and 11 percent considered themselves daily smokers.

In 2011-12, 10 percent of juniors admitted smoking and 2 percent considered themselves daily smokers; 6 percent of freshmen have smoked and 1 percent considered themselves daily smokers.

This survey will be administered again in May and Neves expects tobacco use results will rise, due to the increase in usage of e-cigarettes and hookah pens.

Dai’Re said tobacco use among students is a form of rebellion. Tobacco kills many people, he said, and anything that encourages smoking needs to be stopped.

Neves said it is hoped El Capitan High School can be added to the anti-tobacco efforts.

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