High school "Rebels" relay dangers of smoking to area middle schoolers

If the students at Conestoga Middle School think smoking is cool, you couldn't prove it at Tuesday afternoon's assembly in the cafeteria.

Based on the sounds and looks the from students when shown video footage of plaque-filled aortas; blackened, rotting teeth and diseased mouths of chronic smokers - not to mention their enthusiasm in answering questions about the effects of nicotine, tar and other chemicals on the body - one could assume these kids wouldn't dream of ever lighting up.

Despite recent statistics that show a rise in teen smoking, that's clearly the intention of Rebels With a Cause, a group of juniors from Beaverton and Westview high schools dedicated to spreading the anti-smoking gospel to Beaverton-area middle school students. This is the second year the students, who participate in the Beaverton Health Careers program, sponsored by Providence Health Services, shared their 'be smart, don't start' message with their younger fellow students.

In addition to provocative medical footage, the Rebels' presentation included personalized stories about family members negatively affected by smoking habits. The statistics-armed students pepper the presentations with information regarding the risks of tobacco, including its use in the increasingly popular hookah pipe, commonly assumed to be less harmful than cigarettes.

Conestoga students hit in the ballpark, but ultimately came up short on numbers from the Rebels' pop-quiz questions on how many people in the U.S. die each year from tobacco-related illnesses, and how many chemicals cigarettes contain.

The answers were 443,000 and 4,800, respectively.

The Rebels truly stumped the Conestoga students when asked about the function of the bubbling water in the exotic-looking hookah pipes shared in a number of lounges catering to those 18 and older. Contrary to popular belief, one of the Rebels offered, the water does not serve to filter, but only cool the smoke to 'kind of make it more pleasant,' confirmed Melissa Salmeri, 16, a Beaverton High School junior. "Smoking a hookah for 60 minutes delivers just as much nicotine as 100 cigarettes.'

Following the presentation, the Rebels' second appearance this spring - after a visit to Mountain View Middle School in March - Salmeri said she felt the group's message resonates with most middle schoolers.

'I can tell it in their eyes. Even if they take one small piece away from the presentation, it's something they're going to hold onto," she said.

Tiffany Tran, 17, said she was inspired to explore health issues - and become an anti-smoking 'Rebel' - after her uncle passed away from lung cancer two years ago.

'I saw the effects and what happened with his family, his wife and their kids,' the Beaverton High School junior said. 'I wanted to spread tobacco awareness, including what tobacco can do to you ,and make sure students understand how it affects not only them but those around them.'

Another 'Rebel,' Changso Kim, a Westview High School junior, said he was 13 when his father - who smoked a pack and a half a day - suffered a stroke.

His father, an athlete in high school, told him he started smoking as a teen 'out of curiosity.'

'We thought we might lose him,' Kim said of the stroke. 'He's fine now.'

Spencer Manning, an eighth-grader at Conestoga, said although the presentation contained information he already knew, he learned a thing or two regarding hookah smoking.

'I didn't know,' he admitted of the dangers.

He said he's well aware of the popularity of 'e-cigs' that deliver smoke-free nicotine electronically, as well as the hookah lounges he sees in the area.

"At Beirut Hookah, business is happening," he said of the nearby business. "They say it isn't as bad as smoking cigarettes.'

Julanne Sandoz, school outreach manager for Providence Health and Services, said the Rebels' mission fits the Beaverton Health Careers program's mission of exposing area seniors to health-care practices and public-health issues.

'This provides students with experience in public health issues,' she said of the extracurricular health program. 'It looks good on college and job applications that they've actually gone out and done this work.'

Started in the fall of 2010, the Rebels presentations reached 900 middle school students in its first school year. So far in 2012, 588 students have heard from the Rebels With a Cause.

'There are different Rebels every year,' Sandoz noted. 'There's still a lot of work to be done.'

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