Sporting a knit hat that resembled a human brain, Emma Pace rained $100 bills onto the floor of a middle school health class on a recent Wednesday morning.

The bizarre act symbolized the cost of vaping, the class of eighth-grade students at Blacksburg Middle School were told.

Clothespins attached to the knit hat represented nicotine changing the brain, while the fake cash and Pace’s cough depicted some of the monetary and physical losses that result from the habit.

“Vaping can seem really cool, but I hope they see that trying it even once can get you hooked and what that can cost you,” said Pace, who graduated with a degree in human nutrition, foods, and exercise this spring.

Pace is a member of Hokie Wellness’ peer education group, HEAT (Health Education and Awareness Team), which volunteered to teach workshops on vaping to the school’s seventh- and eighth-grade students in April. The lessons included the demonstrations of vaping’s impacts as well as a flurry of facts about the substance and tips on how to turn it down.

“Vaping is going to be something they face through peer pressure for a long time,” said Carson Stevens, a HEAT member who graduated with a degree in human nutrition, foods, and exercise this spring. “So, whatever they can learn now about it and how to respond when offered is a really good start.”

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Vaping – using electronic cigarettes to heat tobacco-extracted nicotine, flavorings, and other chemicals to create an inhalable aerosol – has been the most-used tobacco product among youth since 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the center's 2021 Nation Youth Tobacco Survey, about 1 in 35 middle school students - grades six through eight - and 1 in 9 high school students reported to have vaped in the past 30 days. For traditional cigarette use, those numbers drop to about 1 in 100 middle school students and 2 in 100 high school students.

“I don’t know that I have anyone [students] who smokes cigarettes,” said Janyne Mathena, a health and physical education teacher at Blacksburg Middle School. “But vaping for sure — from sixth grade on up.”

This shift in how tobacco is commonly used and the uptick in usage among young people is something of which Jon Fritsch, assistant director of Hokie Wellness, is well aware.

“It used to be, all the things I did were trying to prevent middle school students from starting to smoke or dip, but in the last three years, we’re now having to come into schools and talk about quitting,” said Fritsch, who, along with Laurie Fritsch, oversees HEAT.

Each year, HEAT, which has about 30 student members, delivers countless interactive educational health workshops and outreach programs to the Virginia Tech community. The team’s offering’s range from topics regarding safer sex and body image to sleep, digital wellness, and tobacco.

For more than 20 years, Fritsch also has spearheaded Virginia Tech’s Tobacco-Free Hokies campaign. It has been extended to various middle schools in the New River Valley since about 2003. After being temporarily sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic, the group returned to community outreach this spring and with a slightly different focus.

“The whole landscape of smoking and dipping has changed, so we modified our presentation to focus on vaping for the most part,” Fritsch said.

The middle school presentation is similar to the Vape 10 workshop HEAT offers the Virginia Tech community. There are some adjustments made, which allow the Hokie teachers to expand their experience. “This is a younger audience, so we have to teach in a way they’ll understand,” said Stevens. “It’s applicable to the real world because I’m not always going to be talking to college students.”

Offering the workshop to middle schools also embodies Virginia Tech’s motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) as well as lives out the university’s mission as a land-grant institution.

“You know, Blacksburg and Virginia Tech are so interwoven, but at the same time there are still parts of Blacksburg that are unconnected to the university,” said Pace, who grew up in Blacksburg. “Being able to make those connections and maybe help one of our professor’s kids or someone else in the community is a really big deal.”

Pace attended Blacksburg Middle and took part in the Tobacco-Free Hokies workshop as a middle school student. She said she remembered signing a pledge to abstain from using tobacco.

“And I haven’t used it,” Pace said.

Mathena said HEAT had been helping supplement the school’s health curriculum related to tobacco use for several years with very positive results and expects the same this time.

“We’ll hear the students talking about it [the workshop] later that day or later in the week,” Mathena said. “It’s nice to have college students come in and give this information because having it come from people who are closer in age, but they can still look up to, just means more.”

Written by Travis Williams

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