When teenagers start smoking, it's more than a phase in their life. It rapidly escalates into an addiction. Tobacco companies spend millions of dollars on ads luring youngsters to start smoking, and every day nearly 5,000 Americans under the age of 18 smoke their first cigarette.
"Kids are curious. (They are) interested in new things," says Professor Alexander Prokhorov of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
"Of course they'd like to look like mature people, and they see adult people smoke," he says. "They see their favorite characters in movies that smoke, and they want to look like them. Some of them believe that socializing, making friends, being accepted by friends is easier when you smoke."
Professor Prokhorov says that all these reasons were taken into account when experts at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center designed Project ASPIRE last. The program, which was created for high school students in Houston, aims at educating teens about the dangers of smoking. Now, it can be downloaded from the internet by teachers everywhere.
Professor Prokhorov describes ASPIRE as "teen-friendly." "We try to avoid a lot of reading," he says, "because kids do a lot of reading in school anyway. We decided to go with interactive multimedia tools such as quizzes, elements of video games, animation, video interviews and testimonials from teens just like the users of different ethnic backgrounds of their experiences."
Thom Amons is principal of Central High School in Beaumont, Texas, where the program is introduced to students as part of their health class. He says including people that teens can relate to, like athletes and other teens, talking about their own experience with smoking is very effective.
Mr. Amons cites a video of George Webster, a former football player for Michigan State, as an example. "To see how he deteriorated from productive young man to nothing was very touching."
Mr. Amons says teachers download different elements of the program and use it to initiate discussions and writing assignments. Students' comments, he says, are included in the school publication, "Smoking Now Newsletter."
He recalls one story by a student about her grandmother. "[She] said that she tried to get her grandmother to stop smoking for years, and that her grandmother died of breast cancer." Mr. Amons says, "To hear a little 9th grader saying something like this, it has to make an impact not only on her but on her friends or anybody also who may have known something about it."
Professor Prokhorov says the ASPIRE program can also help students who have started smoking quit, but says smokers don't have to identify themselves in front of their classmates. He notes that "kids don't want to come forward and say, 'I'm a smoker, help me.'"
Tailored to the needs of each user, the program examines levels of nicotine dependence, stress and depression. "That's why to program is so-well received by the kids," Professor Prokhorov says, "because it addresses their needs as opposed to just providing them tons of information, they sometimes don't comprehend."
Parents can also use Project ASPIRE at home. If they discover their child is smoking already, Professor Prokhorov advises them to remain calm. "They shouldn't get really angry and start screaming and yelling at their kids," he says. "The best way is to show them you are genuinely disappointed in the fact that your child is smoking and explain the dangers of smoking."
Professor Prokhorov says parents, teachers, and trusted adults can help keep the teens they care about from starting smoking and being addicted to nicotine all their lives. Project ASPIRE, he says, is there to help them do that.