You may have seen the T-shirts on campus. The front mimics a cigarette package, but with one of several humorous twists, such as, “SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Don’t use a porcupine as a pillow. Don’t smoke either.” The back of the shirt shows the HokieBird and identifies the wearer as “Another Tobacco-Free Hokie.”

The Tobacco-Free Hokies campaign, now in its 15th year, began as a program to raise awareness of issues surrounding tobacco use and encourage Virginia Tech students to live a tobacco-free lifestyle. A part of Hokie Wellness, the campaign has expanded in recent years to middle schools in the communities surrounding the university, where Virginia Tech students on the Health Education and Awareness Team (HEAT) take the message to sixth-graders.

Haley Meade of Pound, Virginia, a junior double majoring in biochemistry in the College of Science and religion and culture in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, was drawn to participate in HEAT because of the Tobacco-Free Hokies campaign. She has witnessed first-hand the effects of tobacco use in her home community and the need for education in middle schools.

“Smoking and dipping are very prevalent in Southwest Virginia and I personally know the impact tobacco use can have,” Meade said. “I want to be a role model for my younger brothers and other kids. I want to let them know they don’t have to follow their families or peers. They can decide to be healthy.”

Virginia Tech HEAT members are trained, knowledgeable, skilled, and fun program facilitators. Middle school students not only learn from them, but also look up to them as tobacco-free role models. 

Using a variety of interactive techniques, HEAT members educate the sixth-graders on the dangers of tobacco use. Role-playing, demonstrations, games, and visual aids all give the children a chance to learn about and discuss tobacco use.

“There are many things in our program that can affect a child,” said Jon Fritsch, assistant director for health education with Hokie Wellness, who oversees the Tobacco-Free Hokies campaign. “Learning about all the toxins and carcinogens in tobacco might have the biggest impact on some children. Others are impressed by talking about their mom or dad who use tobacco. Most of them love getting their Tobacco-Free Hokies T-shirt and making a commitment to being healthy.” 

Alexis Gelle of Virginia Beach, Virginia, a senior majoring in human nutrition, foods, and exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has been a part of HEAT since her freshman year and works with the middle school students. “They are at such a malleable age, so they really soak up all we have to say,” said Gelle. “I love going to the schools and presenting the information in a way that's fun and nontraditional. I think that's part of the beauty of this program -- it's not preachy. It's super interactive and we are meeting them where they're at with their existing knowledge of the topic.”

“It’s a vital period in their lives, when they are open to new ideas and confronting peer pressure,” Meade said. “Sixth grade is the perfect age -- before they are too cool to listen.”

Each spring HEAT members teach about 40 educational classes and distribute Tobacco-Free Hokies T-shirts to their middle school students. The Tobacco-Free Hokies campaign has worked in collaboration with the middle schools in Blacksburg, Eastern Montgomery, Christiansburg, Pulaski, Dublin, and Auburn.

Statistics on tobacco use from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services are alarming:

  • 90 percent of adult smokers began at or before age 18.
  • Nearly 3 million middle and high school students are current smokers.
  • More than one-third of all kids who ever try smoking a cigarette become regular, daily smokers before leaving high school.
  • Unless current rates are reversed, 5.6 million children under age 18 alive today will eventually die from smoking-related diseases.

“Vaping is a new danger,” Meade said. “It is marketed in fun flavors that appeal to kids and many think there is no risk in using tobacco this way. I want to let them know they have the option to be tobacco-free. That little stick doesn’t have to control their lives. They have a choice.”

In 2014, the Hokie Wellness Tobacco-Free Hokies program was nominated for the White House Champions of Change for Public Health and Prevention award. Thanks in large part to the efforts of HEAT, Hokie Wellness was invited to the White House Champions of Change reception in Washington, D.C.  

“Of course, I love when Tobacco-Free Hokies is formally recognized as being an influential and important program,” said Fritch. “But the true accolade to me is when a little kid doesn’t start smoking or dipping, a college student dons a Tobacco-Free Hokies T-shirt, or when our programs help anybody quit tobacco.”

Written by Sandy Broughton and Hayley Childress of Virginia Beach, Virginia, a senior majoring in public relations in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

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