While Washington County students learn the ills of nicotine throughout their elementary years, they get a far stronger and more sophisticated push in the seventh grade, according to health resource teacher Sandy Graff.
That's because statistics have shown the biggest jump in smoking rates occurs between sixth and eighth grades, said Graff, who's charged with helping teachers select and develop health curriculums, including tobacco education.
According to the 1994 Maryland Adolescent Survey, 7 percent of sixth-graders reported using tobacco, compared to 25.7 percent of eighth-graders and 28.6 percent of 10th-graders, Graff said.
Federal legislation passed in 1987 mandated drug education - including tobacco - for every student in every grade, Graff said.
County students were learning about the dangers of tobacco long before that, using a research-based program adopted in 1972, she said.
However, research has advanced significantly since then, Graff said.
County students start learning about the hazards of smoking in prekindergarten with a simple storybook-based kit provided by the American Cancer Society, Graff said.
Students learn that nicotine is a drug in kindergarten through fifth grades in the Here's Looking at You 2000 program, which ranges from one to three lessons per year.
By fifth grade, students should be able to describe the psychological and behavioral effects of smoking, inhaling second-hand smoke and using smokeless tobacco, she said.
"Any curriculum is developmental and sequential, so you address it at the level of the students and build on it year after year," Graff said.
All the curriculums - but particularly the middle school curriculum - is built on health education research which has shown that information alone is ineffective, she said.
"You also need to give them a feeling of personal vulnerability, it has to be real," Graff said. "And, if you want the behavior to change, you have to teach them the skills."
That's where the strategies for saying "no" fit in, said North Middle School health teacher Nadine Stauffer, who teaches Project TNT to all of the school's seventh- and eighth-graders.
In seventh-grade, students get 10 lessons focused on getting them to make - and stick with - smart decisions about using tobacco, Stauffer said.
They get two review lessons in eighth-grade, she said.
To start, Stauffer blasts students' perceptions that smoking is a social norm by showing them statistics that prove most of their peers don't use tobacco.
When she's teaching them what tobacco can do to a person, Stauffer said she uses lots of props, including graphic posters comparing real lungs, a giant cigarette that lists all the chemicals in smoke and "Mr. Gross Mouth," a model of a mouth riddled with tobacco-related disease and decay.
"It's just what the seventh-graders love - the more disgusting, the better," said Stauffer, who has her students breathe through straws to see what a smoker's lung capacity is like.
She also teaches them all kinds of ways to say "no" when they're offered tobacco or other drugs, ranging from a simple "No, thanks" to walking away to reversing the pressure by asking "Why would you want to make me do something I don't want to do?"
Eighth-grader Jan Baker still thinks about the diseased lungs Stauffer showed her during Project TNT last year.
"They were really gross," said Baker, 13, who said she learned a lot more about what would happen if she said "yes" to tobacco. "You'd get yellow teeth and yellow fingers and stuff and bad breath."
The program convinced her smoking is not a good idea, she said.
"It's not all that everyone says it is," Baker said. "Everyone says it's so great and it's not."
While most parents expect their children to learn about the evils of tobacco, Graff said she sometimes gets negative calls.
"The parents can get very uncomfortable about this because smoking is something they enjoy or they can't give up," she said.
Teachers aren't trying to teach values, Graff said. And students aren't learning to go home and throw away cigarettes.
The curriculum, which focuses on the child and their body, is designed so that students can ask their parents kinds of questions that prompt discussions about tobacco and other substance abuse, she said.