Friday, October 14, 2011

Virtually smoke-free

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The latest data show that 40% of 12th graders have tried tobacco and 20% are regular smokers.  We still have work to do.

"Tobacco companies rely on addicting new smokers, and teenagers are still at risk,” said Dr. Alex Prokhorov in a presentation to faculty and students at the Center about teen smoking and how to prevent it.

Prokhorov, with MD Anderson Cancer in Houston, has spent the past 30 years developing new ways to keep kids from becoming addicted. “We know what to do, we just need schools and parents to inoculate kids with our anti-tobacco programs.”

Programs, policies, and mass media have been shown to be effective in reducing the risk of children experimenting with tobacco and becoming hooked on cigarettes. The hurdle to jump is delivering anti-tobacco programs using methods that are interesting and entertaining to kids.

My son Ben loves playing games online--in fact, we're both particularly fond of Minecraft right now.  When well done, online games can be extremely effective at securing our attention for large spans of time.  Games can also serve as an effective tool for learning, and they don’t require much class time or teacher preparation.  

The ASPIRE smoking prevention program, which I've been working on and studying with Dr. Prokhorov, uses flash animation and cartoon characters to deliver an educational experience specially tailored to every user.  When kids log in, they create an avatar that represents themselves and their perceptions or experiences with tobacco.  The game takes this information to adapt the lessons and messages to fit each individual.  

It turns out these tobacco prevention games aren't just effective with kids.  Dr. Prokhorov gave us a peek at a similar smoking prevention game he's working on for US soldiers that can be played on a tablet computer, like an iPad.

Cheryl Perry, PhD, Dean of the Austin Regional Campus and editor of the upcoming Surgeon General Report on Teen Smoking, spoke about the optimum time for smoking prevention. “Children typically start experimenting with tobacco in 4th or 5th grade, so it’s important to start anti-tobacco education in late elementary school. The onset of regular smoking begins after experimentation, so kids need smoking prevention education messages through middle and high school.”

Does your school or youth group need an effective, entertaining, and free tobacco prevention and cessation program?  You can learn more about the ASPIRE Program here.  

Written by 
Steve Kelder, PhD, MPH
Co-Director, Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living