By Kassie Parisi
BURNT HILLS — Burnt Hill-Ballston Lake High School recently took its anti-smoking fight to the grassroots level.
May 31 was “World No Tobacco Day,” and to commemorate the day, high school students placed shiny blue pinwheels in the grass in front of the high school.
The 146 pinwheels represented the number of teens who take up smoking each week in New York state, and they were surrounded by signs that contained facts and figures about the dangers of smoking.
The students responsible for the pinwheel effort are a part of Reality Check, a teen-led anti-smoking advocacy organization funded by the New York State Department of Health.
Connor McClernan, a senior at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School, was outside on Wednesday afternoon placing the pinwheels in the ground, and explained that the anti smoking effort was personal for him.
McClernan became involved with Reality Check during his sophomore year after he saw a presentation about smoking in his health class. The presentation was particularly poignant to him due to the fact that his grandfather, who McClernan was close with, died from lung cancer after smoking for his entire life.
That loss happened when he was in eighth grade, but McClernan explained that it was his first real experience with loss and was one of the hardest times in his life. After seeing the Reality Check presentation, McClernan realized that his way of coping with his grandfather’s death would be to help others, and to do everything he could to curb smoking and tobacco use.
“It was a way for me to get involved,” he said. “I joined with the mindset to help other kids not have to go through what I did, but it opened up so many more doors.”
McClernan said that he doesn’t see much smoking among students at his school, and pointed out that, as a whole, the number of teens who pick up smoking each year is going down. But, he added, one school cannot be representative of what is occurring in other schools around the state. According to the state Department of Health, the adult smoking population is at an all-time low — 2.2 million — and the high school smoking population is also at a historic low: 88,000.
“The fact of the matter is, it’s still 146,” McClernan said. “Yes, 146 is better than maybe 300, as it was a year ago, but, 146 is still 146. “What’s going on here might not be the same as what’s going on a couple hours away from here.”
Reality Check serves as an educational and prevention group, rather than an organization that goes head to head with tobacco companies, McClernan explained.
For him, the priority is education. The pinwheels were set up outside of the high school in the area where buses drop middle and high school students off in the morning, which means that the younger students would theoretically see the signs and pinwheels while the older students disembark.
Hopefully, he explained, the signs will steer kids away not only from tobacco use, but also away from electronic cigarettes, which are branded as a healthy alternative to smoking, but are often manufactured and distributed by the same large cigarette companies.
“We want to hit it at the roots,” McClernan said. “If we can get it in their minds early that this is bad, even if it just sticks in the minds of a couple kids, we’re moving in the right direction.”