February 22, 2010

Equipped with posters, props and personal testimonies, members of the Lyon County 4-H Teen Leadership Council shared with elementary students the consequences of using tobacco products and the reasons why they chose to not use them.

Their presentation to fourth- and fifth-graders at Lyon County Elementary School was part of a program called Teens Against Tobacco Use or TATU. The American Lung Association started the national effort to discourage young people from using tobacco products.

The Lyon County program began eight years ago when employees of the county's health department were looking for teens to participate and asked for assistance from Wanda Paris, Lyon County 4H Youth development agent with the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.

The American Lung Association targeted Kentucky as a state with a high percentage of underage tobacco users. Within the state, the Pennyrile region was considered a high-risk area.

In the past few years, the 4-H'ers have taken sole possession of the program. The teens begin planning the program several months in advance. Members of previous groups serve as mentors to the teens.

"The 4-H'ers take this program very seriously and must meet certain qualifications in order to participate," Paris said. She added that 4-H'ers must be a member of the 4-H Teen Leadership Council, sign a contract saying they have been and will continue to be tobacco free and attend workshops like the regional Helping Overcome Tobacco Conference, where they get ideas for the program. 

While programs vary every year, they all have a tobacco-free message and are sensitive to the fact that tobacco use in the area is still high.

"While the 4-H'ers stress the benefits of being tobacco free, they also emphasize that smokers are not bad people," Paris said. "They may not have had programs like this when they were in school and didn't understand the consequences of it when they started."

Chonita Wadlington, a fourth-grade teacher at the school, said this is one of the most popular programs among her students.

"So many of these teens are role models for the younger students" she said. "Many of them are athletes or actively involved in other school organizations, and the younger ones look up to them. This program has a big impact."

Some of the 4-H'ers joined the group because of the influence it had on them when they were in the elementary school. 

"When I was in fifth grade, a bunch of teens did this for me, and it's the reason why I didn't pick up tobacco," said Katie Jones, 4-H'er and senior at Lyon County High School. She has been involved with the program for the past four years.

"My older sister was in the group that started this," said Landon Norman, 4-H'er and Lyon County High School sophomore. "When I was a kid, I looked up to them and believed what they said."

Paris and the 4-H'ers presented the program to other 4-H groups this past fall at the Southern Region Teen Leadership Conference in Crossville, Tenn.