Friday, February 10, 2012

CORPUS CHRISTI A walk and run Saturday is aiming to improve community health with a two-pronged approach: getting hundreds of people actively enjoying downtown and stopping local kids from smoking.

Funds raised by the It’s Your Life 2-mile walk and 5K run support the Ante Tobacco Education Program, a prevention effort headed by local pulmonologist Salim Surani. After seeing new adults each week with smoking-related lung cancer who still couldn’t shake the tobacco habit, Surani began focusing on keeping kids from starting.

“On average, people take their first puff of a cigarette between sixth and seventh grade, so prevention has to start before that,” he said. “That’s why we focus on elementary school.”

His prevention effort turned into the nonprofit It’s Your Life Foundation, which since 2005 has shared the Ante Tobacco message with more than 40,000 first-, second- and third-grade students in 10 Corpus Christi area school districts. Surani has largely funded It’s Your Life with his money, but as the program has grown, donations and funds from the walk/run help reach more children.

Volunteers from the medical community deliver the Ante Tobacco message, which features a video starring Tinku the talking ant.

“He teaches kids to say ‘no’ the first time and every time,” said Diane Kaiser, administrator at Dubuis Health System.

For resisting the temptation to use tobacco, Tinku is rewarded with the strength to carry things heavier than he is. Question and answer time follows the presentations, and the students receive pencils, stickers and a book featuring Tinku.

If a child doesn’t try smoking, the program’s work is done, Surani said. For many, it seems the message is sinking in already.

“The unexpected part of the program is that the kids are becoming ambassadors,” Surani said. “When a relative reaches for a pack of cigarettes, there are kids who say, ‘Grandpa, it’s bad.’ It’s very tough to take a cigarette when your grandchild is there telling you it’s bad.”