Matt Rodkey has nothing but glowing praise for Smokeless Saturday, a program created by Breathe Pennsylvania more than 20 years ago with the objective to educate youths about the dangers of using tobacco and nicotine products.

“It is extremely educational and very well-run,” says Rodkey, the assistant principal in Homer-Center School District. “There is a lot of great information for participants to learn.”

Despite the superlatives Rodkey has for Smokeless Saturday, it remains a program he would prefer not be necessary.

“In a perfect world there wouldn’t be a need for Smokeless Saturday or similar stop-smoking programs,” Rodkey says.

Homer-Center students enrolled in the program, which carries a $50 fee, are required to attend it because they were found in possession of tobacco or nicotine products on school grounds. These students must attend one Smokeless Saturday program and serve a trio of three-hour detentions.

“Our goal isn’t to punish the teen, but rather to educate them about the dangers of smoking and vaping,” Rodkey says. “There is a lot of misinformation out there about smoking and vaping — especially vaping — and the class does an excellent job of breaking down exactly what vaping is and the dangers of it.”

While the number of Homer-Center students caught using tobacco products during the 2020-21 school year was relatively low — Rodkey estimates the number was roughly five — it was still too many for his and district administrators’ liking.

Becky Kishlock, Breathe Pennsylvania’s director of tobacco cessation and education programs, says the program consists of multiple modules ranging from habit and addiction to the contents of a cigarette, e-cigarette and smokeless tobacco to health effects, financial consequences and quitting strategies.

“It’s an intensive program that uses a positive approach to help teens quit using tobacco and nicotine,” Kishlock says of Smokeless Saturday, which is held every other Saturday via Google Classroom during the school year. “The idea isn’t just to get them to quit, but also teach them why using nicotine products is so dangerous and the consequences to their health.”

Kishlock says there is evidence suggesting teens become dependent on nicotine more easily than adults and that nicotine may interfere with brain development.

Cigarette smoking is the most preventable cause of the death in the United States.

Both Kishlock and Rodkey have seen a decrease in cigarette smoking among teens, but they acknowledge e-cigarettes and vaping are on the rise.

“I seldom see students using the traditional cigarette anymore,” Rodkey says. “Most kids are vaping nowadays, and I think that’s because they mistakenly believe it doesn’t have the side effects of smoking.”

Kishlock says although e-cigarettes don’t produce smoke, they can still do plenty of damage.

“One Juul pod contains 60 milligrams of nicotine, while a cigarette has about two milligrams of nicotine,” Kishlock says. “I think social media has glamorized vaping; and because it smells good and there are a lot of sweet flavors kids don’t grow up thinking that it’s gross, like smoking a cigarette. That is not associated with vaping, but it is very addictive and the nicotine levels are high.”

Since the ultimate goal of Smokeless Saturday is to get participants to refrain from using tobacco products, a major portion of the program focuses on how to quit smoking or vaping.

“We talk about a nicotine-replacement program, like switching to nicotine gum or the patch,” Kishlock says. “We also address quitting cold turkey and how sugar-free candy, flavored toothpicks and increasing your water consumption are alternatives.”

Quitting smoking may seem like a daunting task, but Kishlock says the Smokeless Saturdays program has a proven track record of helping participants do just that.

“We’ve had many success stories in our 20 years,” she says. “I can recall a student from Allegheny County who was actually homeless when he was brought into the program. He made a great connection with our staff and quit vaping. We were able to connect him with our resources and he’s doing great. The program can be life-changing.”

For more information about the nonprofit group Breathe Pennsylvania and Smokeless Saturday, visit www.breathepa.org/smokeless-saturday.