ST. PETERSBURG — Students involved in SWAT (Students Working Against Tobacco), a youth program organized by the Pinellas County Department of Health, at James B. Sanderlin IB World School did their part cleaning up Dell Holmes Park in the Highland Oaks Neighborhood of south St. Petersburg March 16.
Thousands of students and teachers across the United States held events in recognition of National Kick Butts Day, an annual event organized by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, to raise awareness on the dangers of smoking tobacco and to encourage youths to just say no to smoking.
This is the second year in a row that the SWAT group at Sanderlin has taken part in this event according to Lilia Cagle, a sixth grade language and literature instructor and head of the SWAT group. The group started out with only five or six students last year, and has since grown to around 25 students who have joined to help raise awareness.
“They’re learning how to make the world a better place,” said Bill Barlow, a sixth and seventh grade social studies teacher at Sanderlin, who came to help out with the students.
With rubber gloves and trash bags in hand, students found dozens of cigarette butts, plastic cigarette holders, and paper rolls to roll cigarettes all over the park next to trash cans and benches, even finding an empty cigarette box in the parking lot next to a handicap space as they were leaving.
By cleaning up the park the students get to raise awareness and at the same time learn new things themselves.
“The message is to just say no to big tobacco and choose not to smoke, and at the same time we are helping the environment by getting rid of all the butts” Cagle said. “[The] kids were kind of awakened to this like ‘oh I didn’t even know these types of tobacco even existed,’ so that was a good teachable moment too.”
Research done by the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas indicates that 2.84 percent of all middle school students in Pinellas County smoked within a month back in 2012, and 50 percent of children from age 10 to 20 were exposed to secondhand smoke.
According to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2014, smoking and secondhand smoke can cause many health problems and cancers over time, which include stroke, coronary heart disease, reproductive effects in women and many different types of cancer from throat cancer to liver.
In the report, Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and prevention, stated that when he thinks of smoking he recalls some of the realities that care providers see on a daily basis.
“The man who had a leg amputated. The woman who had to gasp for every single breath that she took. The man with heart disease who hoped to see his son graduate, but didn’t live long enough to do so,” Dr. Frieden wrote on the report.
These are only some of the realities that people who smoke, people with family members who smoke and those who are exposed to it on a daily basis experience. According to the Florida Health Department in Pinellas there are approximately 430,000 deaths related to cigarette use, and about 28,700 of those are in Florida.
The SWAT group consists mostly of those who have been personally affected by the effects of cigarette smoking, including Cagle, who said her mother passed away of heart disease and was told by doctors that it was due to the many years she had smoked. Although she had not smoked in 14 years, it still had a lasting effect, doctors told her.
Seventh grader Brody Barley, 12, is the president of SWAT at Sanderlin. Barley joined the group two years ago after his grandmother had a stroke due to smoking. Brody wants people to know that “smoking can cause many diseases and not only does it hurt you, it hurts your family members around you.”
Brody is working to convince his grandmother to stop smoking by going for walks with her and doing many activities that keeps her mind off of smoking. While on walks he also picks up cigarette butts along the way to clean up his own neighborhood.
The SWAT group does many things on a biweekly basis to spread the message on the dangers of smoking around school and at school meetings. Such as putting gravestones around school with statistics written on them, sending out hearts on Valentine’s Day with information on how smoking affects the heart and showing people a model lung that shows how it affects the lungs.
People interested in knowing more about SWAT or helping out with other events can contact Steven Sergent, SWAT Coordinator at the Florida Department of Health Pinellas County, at (727) 588-4040 Ext. 3158 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sarah Mason is a reporter in the Neighborhood News Bureau at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.