Tuesday's scavenger hunt at two local community centers wasn't the typical hunt-and-grab affair. It was more of a focused frenzy.
All 73 youngsters kept their eyes peeled for the same object - discarded cigarette butts - and everyone learned an important lesson.
"They are icky," 8-year-old Trinity Thompson said.
"Yeah, they stink," several boys yelled.
"Smoking is pretty gross," said Soleil Fisher, 11.
The activity marked the first time El Paso County Health has teamed up with community centers to spread the anti-smoking message to the most impressionable demographic: elementary school students.
On average, children try their first cigarette at age 11 or 12 - around the time they graduate to middle school, said Susan Wheelan, communication director for El Paso County Health.
"We know how important it is to work with the kids and educate them because nicotine is as addictive as heroin or cocaine," she said.
Nearly all adult smokers start in their youth and become hooked on the habit before they turn 18, she said. "So prevention is critical."
The kids, who were enjoying spring break at Deerfield Hills and Meadows Park community centers, seemed to get it.
Nine-year-old Samya Pereira knows that cigarette smoke can trigger asthma attacks.
"I have asthma," she said, "and I'm never going to smoke."
On the brisk afternoon, the kids scoured nearby parks for used cigarettes and, wearing disposable gloves, picked them up and stuffed them into old plastic bottles.
"This way, they're able to see the magnitude of the problem," said Mary Baldwin, program coordinator for Deerfield Hills Community Center. "The whole goal is to get them thinking about anti-tobacco initiatives."
While they were at it, the children collected other trash they found in the parks and tossed plastic spoons, bottles, food wrappers, broken toys and such into large garbage bags.
"It's nature around here, and people are ruining it - they're throwing cigarettes and other stuff on the ground, and it's just really gross," Samya said.
Nobody seemed to mind spending part of their vacation cleaning up after others.
"It's helping the Earth," 11-year-old Tori Boyd said. "People are so disrespectful to our park."
The event was born after the Colorado Springs City Council banned smoking in all city parks in July, Wheelan said. The project addressed the reasons for the new law: improving health of residents, cleaning up the environment and reducing fire danger.
The activity is part of the health department's Tobacco Education Prevention Partnership, a grant-funded anti-smoking awareness program offered in conjunction with other organizations.
"We want to protect kids and help educate them to make choices that benefit them and the community and not be fooled by misleading, slick tobacco advertising," Wheelan said.
Many of the children who use community centers are exposed to tobacco products regularly, said Brian Kates, director of the Meadows Park Community Center. It's one of three community centers operated by the city.
Being around parents or other caregivers who smoke often leads to experimentation at a young age, Kates said.
"Parks and recreation programs can support public health efforts to educate and inform in a recreational setting," he said.
"Events like this provide enjoyable experiences that have an important underlying message," Kates said.
Kids also signed posters pledging they will never start smoking and were rewarded for their hard work with T-shirts and other goodies from the health department.
"I won't smoke because it'll make my lungs black," Trinity said. "And it gives you heart attacks."
- Six out of 10 high school students in Colorado who attempt to buy cigarettes are successful.
- More than 4,000 children in Colorado younger than 18 become regular smokers each year.
- Cigarette butts are the No. 1 littered item in the United States.
- Secondhand smoke contains nearly 250 toxic ingredients, including 70 that are known to cause cancer.
- A pack-a-day smoker spends nearly $2,000 per year on cigarettes.
- Tobacco remains the leading cause of preventable disease and death in Colorado.
- There are free resources to help people quit. The Colorado Quitline, 1-800-QUIT NOW, offers free telephone coaching and nicotine replacement therapy for eligible residents. A website, www.coquitline.org, also provides support. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment last week launched a free iPhone and Android app to help people quit. Go to TobaccoFreeCO.org.