The Phoenix Suns Gorilla made a visit to Kyrene del Milenio Elementary School Friday afternoon to teach second- through fifth-grade students why "tobacco is a personal foul." Through a collaboration of the Phoenix Fire Department, the Arizona Department of Health Services and the Phoenix Suns, Milenio held this enthusiastic yet educational assembly in conjunction with Project Alert. "Project Alert is a program run through the Maricopa County Tobacco Use Prevention Program," said spirit coordinator Josclyn Snyder. "This program offers leadership, direction, education and support to all residents of Maricopa County and works collaboratively with our communities to create a tobacco-free environment." Snyder said the assembly was a kick-start for the fifth-graders to begin the Project Alert program in class. Students watched with wide eyes as videos of the Gorilla played on a big screen in Milenio's multi-purpose room and cheered as the mascot ran out to greet them from behind a curtain. Assistant to the Gorilla, Devon Nelson, read a book called What's that Smell? as the Gorilla acted out a day he encountered second-hand smoke and his reasoning behind staying tobacco free. "It was cigarette smoke - the worst smell ever known to man!" Nelson read. "The Gorilla knew he would never smoke because then he wouldn't be able to do is favorite past times, he would be tired and always feeling bad." Fire Pal Dave Wilson of the Phoenix Fire Department followed the performance with a more serious approach. "Everything I'm going to tell you is true," he said. "Tobacco companies spend $31 million a day trying to get you to try smoking just once. Why? Because there is a nasty drug inside called nicotine." Wilson told speechless students that many Arizona Diamondbacks baseball players are trying to quit chewing tobacco, but because of the nicotine it is a problem. Students gasped as the fireman then told a story about his father, who died of cancer resulting from tobacco use. "My dad had to come home and tell me he had six months to live and he wasn't going to be able to watch Suns games with me anymore," he said. According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids Web site, nearly every adult who smokes (almost 90 percent) took his or her first puff before the age of 18. In fact, the campaign says the peak years for first trying to smoke are between the ages of 11 and 12, with a considerable number starting even earlier. Schools are in a uniquely powerful position to play a major role in reducing the problem of smoking and other tobacco use by kids. "Other than seeing at such a young age what the effects of smoking are, this program is unlike others because they are influenced by a role model - the Gorilla," Nelson said. The Phoenix Fire Department, ADHS and the Phoenix Suns put on about 40 tobacco prevention assemblies throughout the state each year. For more information, visit www.azdhs.gov/phs/tepp. Corinne Frayer can be reached at (480) 898-7917 or firstname.lastname@example.org.