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Tobacco-Use Prevention Meets Tobacco Production At Our Last Workshop

by Pamela J. Luna, DrPH, MEd

Project ALERT teacher training is now offered exclusively online. Here is the story of the last workshop conducted by the BEST Foundation.

Where did the training take place?

At the Cigar Factory in Owensboro, Kentucky!

Kentucky Derby

Ok y’all, class is in session. Here is the question: “What do Abraham Lincoln, Johnny Depp, Muhammad Ali, Wynonna Judd and George Clooney all have in common?” Answer: “They were all born in Kentucky.” Although this may be a lesser known fact about Kentucky, it does capture attention. What often comes to mind when people think of this state is bluegrass, horseracing and whiskey. A genre of country music called bluegrass has its origins here; the state is home to a premier Triple Crown event, the Kentucky Derby; and, it is a major producer of a unique brand of whiskey known as bourbon.

Kentucky is also known for its deeply rooted history with tobacco. One might say it is a tightly rolled relationship. Since before Kentucky entered the Union in 1792 as the 15th state, tobacco has played a major role. It was the #1 cash crop and the economy of the Commonwealth was built upon it. Tobacco is still one of the top crops making Kentucky the second largest producer of tobacco in the country (North Carolina is first). It is not uncommon to have 6th generation tobacco farming families still growing tobacco in the state, although this is changing. Big tobacco companies have bought up much of the prime farmland and family farmers are being phased out.

You may recall that Kentucky was ground zero for the now infamous investigation of former tobacco giant Brown & Williamson (BW), an American Tobacco Company, which was headquartered in Louisville. The investigation revealed evidence documenting that BW and other tobacco companies purposely altered nicotine in cigarettes to enhance addictiveness and boost their sales and profits. This scandal resulted in the seven “Big Tobacco” company executives perjuring themselves under oath to Congress stating “nicotine is not addictive”. Ultimately the seven companies paid out a $368 billion health-related damage settlement that was distributed to the states.

In 2012 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that Kentucky has the highest prevalence of smoking in the United States with 29% of adults as current smokers (vs. 21% nationwide) and 24% of high school youth smoking (vs. 18% nationwide). Sarah Lippert, a prevention specialist at River Valley Behavioral Health (RVBH) in Owensboro, notes that these figures may be low. “According to the 2010 Kentucky Youth Tobacco Survey, 36.7% of high school students use some form of tobacco,” she says. Both cigarette smoking and chewing tobacco are big concerns for youth in Kentucky. Sadly, both the CDC and the American Cancer Society also report that Kentucky has the highest rates of lung cancer in the nation.

Teaming up with Project ALERT

River Valley Behavioral Prevention Center (RVBH), a community-based organization serving western Kentucky, joined forces with River Valley Hospital and three area school districts to look for ways to push back these troubling statistics.

Ms. Lippert contacted Project ALERT program manager, Leslie Thompson Aguilar, seeking solutions. “It was important to us to have a curriculum that had research to back it up and where we could see how effective it has been.” With evidence of program effectiveness, the leadership team secured a grant from the hospital and met with the principals of 6 middle schools in Daviess and Hancock counties.

Each school came up with a plan to fit Project ALERT into their curriculum. In several schools Project ALERT would be taught in science or social science classes, in another it would be taught in physical education and yet another, during life skills.

Project ALERT’s trainer, Pam Luna, recalls arriving for the training workshop

Cigar Factory Sign

Training for an enthusiastic group of teachers and RVBH administrators took place this past Fall. I recall arriving that morning at a huge warehouse-type building with a sign on it that said, Cigar Factory. As I drove around the building several times, I thought certainly my GPS is playing a trick on me. A security guard spotted me looking lost and confused and approached my car. What was going on here? After chatting with the security guard, I learned that the building, once owned and operated by The American Tobacco Company, was now an office space and training facility owned by RVBH. That was quite a turn of events-a tobacco production site now being used for tobacco-use prevention training!

Taking Project ALERT Statewide

Today the implementation of Project ALERT at the target schools is well underway. Lippert proudly reports, “The feedback from administrators and teachers has been nothing but positive. Teachers enjoy delivering the lessons and students are learning. Our teachers have found that Project ALERT is helpful in opening the door to conversations about substance abuse. It has been a really good fit for everyone involved.”

RVBH is not stopping here. They have plans to build off this early model of success taking the program to scale. Lippert shares, “Since Project ALERT is one of the most effective evidence-based curricula in regards to reducing marijuana usage, we plan to have the curriculum implemented statewide.”

Through collaboration, commitment and careful planning, this team is doing what just a few years ago may have been impossible. They are bringing substance abuse prevention education (including tobacco-use prevention) into the schools in Kentucky.

For more information about this work contact Sarah Lippert -

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