Student combats vaping epidemic one T-shirt at a time

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Posted September 7, 2022 | By Caroline Brauchler
caroline@ocalagazette.com

One Forest High School student encouraged her peers to not “follow the pac” by resisting the pressure to vape—and won a contest in the process.

Freshman Gabrielle Sumalbag was the winner of this year’s Anti-Vaping T-Shirt and Hashtag Contest, an effort through Fitness and Nutrition in Schools (FANS) to discourage students from using tobacco products, educate them on the dangers of use, and promote healthy lifestyles.

“I came up with ‘Don’t follow the pac’ because tobacco and Pac-Man for me sound similar,” Sumalbag said in a video released by Marion County Public Schools. “You don’t need to follow the students who are using tobacco or vape.”

Sumalbag said in the video she thought of the idea while sitting in health class during eighth grade. As she and her classmates were brainstorming ideas for the hashtag, she came up with her Pac-Man-inspired idea, that led to a colorful T-shirt with vivid video game visuals.

The FANS team, facilitated by the Marion County Hospital District, came to Sumalbag’s classroom with balloons and a poster with her winning design to congratulate her in front of her friends and classmates. Kristi Dixon, a FANS health educator, said the student’s design will be used to promote health and wellness throughout the entire school district.

“I just thought it was the most creative thing that she had created this Pac-Man that was destroying the vapes rather than eating the ghosts,” said Dixon. “It was very colorful and catchy, and it kind of stood out not only to me but to our whole team.”

Sumalbag’s design and hashtag will be put on lanyards, flyers and T-shirts across all the schools in the county, as well as serve as the design and slogan for “The Great American Smokeout,” an annual event on the third Thursday of November to raise awareness to the harms of smoking and offer resources to quit

Efforts like these to combat vaping among teens are needed now more than ever, as in 2018 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared youth e-cigarette use an epidemic. According to the 2021 National Youth Tobacco Survey, about 13.4% of high school students and about 4% of middle school students in America reported using some form of tobacco product.

“It is very prevalent among our students. It’s not just a Marion County problem; it’s a nationwide problem,” Dixon said.

Most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, the addictive drug found in tobacco products, cigarettes and cigars. Young people have not only been found to be more susceptible to becoming addicted to nicotine, but the substance also harms the development of the brain in youths and changes the way connections are established within the brain, according to the CDC.

“That’s what we’re out to try to stop and make [students] understand that these products are full of chemicals as well,” Dixon said. “They are causing harm to their brain, their heart and their lungs by using these products.”

Dixon said she encourages all parents to visit the CDC website to inform themselves of the dangers their children may be in if they choose to vape, and that one of the best ways to discourage students from these activities is to show them just how negative of an effect that tobacco use can have on their future.

“Unfortunately, teenagers live for the here and now,” she said. “We’re just trying to make them understand that the choices that they make today can affect them for their whole lives.”