Janelle Cole took her first puff off a cigarette in Grade 9, and about a year later she was hooked.
Three years later, she still has the occasional cigarette but Cole is working at kicking her nicotine habit.
She knows all the risks, and is unfortunately losing her grandfather to smoking-related illness.
“I should feel obligated to not smoke,” said Cole, now in her senior year at W.L. Seaton. “It’s not worth my life.”
But surrounded by friends, and family, who smoke, she admits, it’s a hard habit to break.
“The majority of people around me smoke.”
Lucky for Cole, there is some support right at school for her.
Seaton, along with all the high schools in the Vernon school district, have implemented Kick the Nic programs for students.
The students, most of whom attend of their own free will, meet once a week or whenever additional support is needed.
“At our meetings, we discuss quitting strategies, set quit dates, and discuss ways to deal with cravings,” said Sarah Kwantes, who runs the program at Seaton.
“Our ultimate goal is to help kids stop smoking.”
Seaton principal Mike Bell is impressed with how participation in the group is steadily growing as the word spreads about the benefits of the program.
“These kids, they wanna quit but they don’t know how,” said Bell, happy to see the students find support in the group.
Students are also attracted to some of the perks of the program, like pizza lunches and a special dinner at the end of the year for the quitters. Four of the quitters will also get their teeth whitened before graduation thanks to a donation from Dr. Sean Bicknell of Pleasant Valley Dental.
The students also learn about the effects of smoking, like the fact that smoking strips their skin of collagen, causing their faces to shrivel up faster and make them age sooner.
“That’s an important motivator for a lot of people – they want to look good,” said Doug Rogers, the school district’s substance abuse prevention counsellor.
Dr. Chris Cunningham recently visited the school to provide some additional insight into the effects of smoking.
“I’d say 80 to 90 per cent of my work is smoking related,” said Cunningham, a doctor who sees the importance of smoking cessation.
From psoriasis to cancer and gangrene to heart attacks and strokes, they are all commonly connected to smoking.
While all smokers know it’s hazardous to their health, Sylvia Grutzmacher, respiratory therapist at Interior Health, says they continue to do it.
“It would be like us testing your water and saying your water causes cancer – you wouldn’t drink it.”
So knowing how bad it is for them, the students were asked why do they do it?
The students say stress, acceptance, a social habit and even because “it looks cool,” are all reasons they picked up the habit.
“The reason I think I started smoking is my mom is a really heavy smoker,” said one student, who remembers mimicking her mom by pretending to smoke when she was in Grade 4.
Grade 12 student Chelsea Pierce started smoking in Grade 9 and says the fact that her parents smoke played a large role in her picking up the habit.
Pierce doesn’t want to smoke, and she has plans to quit one day, which is why she attends the Kick the Nic meetings.
“This is helpful to get me to that point (of quitting).”
The students, many of whom are in Grade 12, are also reminded of the hundreds of younger eyes looking up to them.
It may not be a job they wanted, but regardless the senior students are role models.
“You guys are leaders and role models for grade 6, 7, 8 and 9s,” said Cunningham, who also tested the level of carbon monoxide in the lungs of some of the young smokers. “There’s Grade 7s that will smoke by seeing you guys do it. It happens all the time.”
Rogers adds: “We know from the research, where do kids learn to smoke – at school.”
Therefore they are encouraged to make it difficult for the younger students to pick up the habit.
“You guys have to boot out the Grade 8 or 9’s (from the smoking areas),” said Rogers.
The health officials and school staff know they can’t help every student, but: “If even one of those kids quits it makes a big difference,” said Rogers.