Brighton Students Test New Ways to Make Healthy Choices

April 21, 1998

Researchers at the University of Rochester's Center for the Study of Rochester's Health are piloting a new approach to teach kids how to make decisions about smoking, drugs and sex. The pilot comes as a new report by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America shows that parents underestimate the presence of drugs in their children's lives, and amid growing concern about the effectiveness of current anti-drug programs such as DARE.

This month, fifth graders at Brighton's French Road Elementary School are participating in a pilot study, known as "Sticky Tar," which focuses on smoking deterrence. A series of three sessions partners student, school and family in the lesson. The ultimate goal, according to researchers, is to use the anti-smoking lesson to teach kids a decision-making framework for evaluating other important life and health choices, involving drugs, sex or other health risks.

"With Sticky Tar, we discuss the reasons that kids choose to smoke, those broad societal influences such as pressure from peers and the media," Botelho said. "From there, we ask kids to involve their own parents in discussions about smoking. Finally, we'll discuss the kids' personal reasons for not smoking and concerns they may have about not smoking, such as fear of not fitting in. By helping kids to understand their own motivation and vulnerabilities, we can teach them a process to make informed decisions for themselves."

According to study investigator Richard Botelho, M.D., the students have been given a homework assignment to study tobacco advertisements in magazines to understand the ads' persuasive messages. Back in class, students have developed their own anti-smoking message to counter the ads' themes, and using colored markers, students adapted the ads to portray their own anti-smoking message. "Our approach is different since we are preparing kids to develop their own anti-smoking messages based on the factors that influence them personally," Botelho said. "We believe that this will be more effective than spoon-feeding them our own abstinence messages. I only wish indoctrination worked well."

Students were also asked to interview their parents about their level of education in relation to smoking and its implications, making healthy decisions, understanding their reasons or motivations for smoking, and whether they were tempted as kids to smoke. In fact, the Partnership Attitude Tracking Study, released earlier this month, found that drug use is significantly lower among children who learn about the risks from their parents.

Another important aspect of the lesson is the Sticky Tar Lottery. After being given informational reading about smoking and nicotine addiction, students form groups to develop questions about the reading material. Questions are placed in a hat and drawn, lottery style, for others to answer.

The students also participate in the Sticky Decision Lottery in which they first develop a list of their own temptations, then compare these with another peer before writing a statement about why they might smoke even if they think they won't. Again, statements are drawn from a hat and shared with the entire class. According to Botelho, this helps the students to recognize their personal vulnerabilities.

Over time, the research team plans to compare the effectiveness of their approach against what is currently being offered, including DARE, Botelho said. Students, teachers and health care professionals will be asked to compare Sticky Tar with other programs. "The real questions we need to answer are, 'Does the Sticky Tar approach change students' attitudes?' and 'Does it ultimately change behavior?'."

Despite current efforts, cigarette smoking among teens continues to grow. A recent survey by the American Lung Association shows a 10-year high in the number of teenage smokers; 31.2 percent of high school teenagers admitted to smoking cigarettes in a one-month period.

"The tobacco companies' marketers are outsmarting us with creative persuasion," Botelho said. "We need to apply the same degree of creative energy to our health education efforts to change behavior toward a more positive end."

Organized by the University of Rochester's Center for the Study of Rochester's Health, Sticky Tar is sponsored by the University of Rochester Schools of the Medicine and Dentistry and Nursing, and the Monroe County Health Department. Other researchers involved in the pilot program include County Health Department deputy director Nancy M. Bennett, M.D., M.S., Jane Kirshling, R.N., D.N.S., associate dean of the University of Rochester School of Nursing and Madeline Schmidt, Ph.D., R.N., F.A.A.N., professor at the University of Rochester School of Nursing, Robert J. Panzer, M.D., chief quality officer at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and Marcia Furey, M.S., educational consultant at the University's LEARN program.

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