Mmm, brains! KnowSmoke Zombie Walk educates Muskegon’s youth (and adults) about the dangers of tobacco and vaping

Muskegon students perform their best undead impressions for the KnowSmoke Zombie Walk.

These zombies didn’t eat brains—they used them.

The Muskegon students, teachers, health workers, and other area residents who gathered for the fifth annual KnowSmoke Zombie Walk decked themselves out in their best undead costumes and took to the streets this past Saturday, Oct. 6 to educate youth and the community at large about the dangers of tobacco and e-cigarettes.

“My philosophy is it’s easier to keep our kids from smoking than to get our adults to stop,” said Cyndi Powers, the Community Health Improvement Coordinator who runs the Health Project’s KnowSmoke Coalition and teaches prevention education to more than 4,000 students in Muskegon each year. The Health Project is a community benefit ministry of Mercy Health.

“Our youth smoking rates have gone down by 60 percent, but our vaping rates are off the charts,” Powers continued. “Vaping was marketed to help people stop smoking; it was marketed as a healthy alternative to smoking, but it’s not. We want to educate our youth on that.”

E-cigarettes are typically filled with liquid made of nicotine, flavoring and other chemicals, which have been linked to cancer, respiratory disease, and other health problems. Using an e-cigarette is called vaping.

Powers noted that an increase in vaping among youth, and adults, is causing Mercy Health to see “a lot of popcorn lung” admissions to the hospital.

“They’re seeing a lot of respiratory issues” from people using e-cigarettes,” Powers said. “If users have asthma and vape, they’re having more issues with their asthma.”

Members of the Hackley Community Care School Programs attend the walk.

For advocates working to increase awareness of the health risks associated with tobacco use, there’s good news: in Muskegon County, adolescent cigarette smoking rates are declining. According to a 2017-18 Michigan Profile for Healthy Youth, 4.7 percent of high school students in Muskegon County reported smoking cigarettes within the past 30 days. According to the same report, 21.4 percent of those same students reported having ever tried cigarette smoking in their lifetime.

But, as Powers noted, vaping use has dramatically increased. The 2017-18 Michigan Profile for Healthy Youth said 24.9 percent of high school students reported using an electronic vapor product during the past 30 days, up from 17.5 percent in 2015-16. These statistics mirror a national trend: according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adolescent use of e-cigarettes has, nationwide, skyrocketed 900 percent from 2011 to 2015.

To further educate the public about the negative health effects of both tobacco use and vaping, the KnowSmoke Coalition launched the first zombie walk at Muskegon High School in March of 2013 to support “Kick Butts Day,” a campaign for tobacco-free youth. Widespread student support for the event helped to morph the initiative into a successful community-wide walk that’s now held every year in October.

KnowSmoke is a collaborative of the Coalition for a Drug Free Muskegon County and partners with Muskegon’s 1 in 21 initiative, among other community organizations, to reduce tobacco and e-cigarette use throughout the city and county.

As part of those efforts, the annual zombie walk not only aims to be educational, but fun—students and other community members incorporate anti-smoking and anti-vaping messages in their undead costumes and can even have their makeup done by theater students from Muskegon High School. After everyone was looking their scariest, the participants this year kicked off their march in Heritage Landing and did their best zombie impressions along the shoreline. They then returned to Heritage Landing for a choreographed monster dance, music by DJ Vandal, a zombie costume contest, and food. Health information from a variety of Muskegon-based organizations also was available, and a representative from 70×7 Muskegon spoke about addiction.

“I like that we’re helping to protest smoking,” said Shacuria Nicholson, an 11th grade student and a member of Muskegon High School’s theater department. “I think [the walk is] showing people why they shouldn’t smoke, especially the young kids.”

Kymani Martin, a sophomore at Muskegon High School, agreed.

“The walk is fun because you get to meet new people,” she said. “It’s showing what could happen if you smoke.”

Kirk Carlson, the director of theater at Muskegon High School, said he has been thrilled that his department and students partner with the event each year.

“This is such an important thing to do for the community,” Carlson said, adding that, in addition to keeping individuals from smoking and vaping, it provides an important outlet for students, parents, and other residents who have battled addiction.

Muskegon High School Theater Director Kirk Carlson and Cyndi Powers, who runs the KnowSmoke Coalition, act like zombies with a group of students.

Additionally, it offers a safe space for new theater students to explore their dramatic side—and to see their theatrical efforts being well received.

“Once a student does the walk, they almost always come back the next year,” Carlson said.

“This is a fun way to start off the school year; I get to see the kids outside of the classroom and meet their families,” the theater teacher added.

But it’s not just about fun and games, Carlson and others stressed. It shows Muskegon’s youth that their community is interested and invested in their well-being.

“A lot of our kids come from traumatizing situations,” Carlson said. “It’s our job to give them hope.”

[Click on any of the images below to start the photo slideshow.]

Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Photos by Anna Gustafson, unless otherwise noted. You can connect with her by emailing or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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