The announcement of a new lottery-funded project to help young people stop smoking in Wales has thrown the spotlight on the worryingly high numbers of school children who are smoking cigarettes.
The BIG Lottery Fund will provide over £850,000 of funding to Ash Wales, an anti-smoking charity, to run the new Young People’s Quit Smoking Service, after it was revealed that 14,000 young people aged 11-15 experiment with smoking annually in Wales. But the BBC News website also reported that a shocking estimated 330,000 young people under 15 try smoking in England every year, whilst 13% of Scottish 15 year olds are actually regular smokers. This clearly suggests an endemic problem, with extremely high numbers of young people risking their health. The question is: how can we stop school children smoking?
One argument is that the best way to stop young people smoking is to prevent them from ever starting in the first place. Given the difficulty of breaking the cycle once addiction has taken hold (which usually happens when a smoker is young), it makes a lot of sense to focus funding and efforts on pre-smoking youngsters. But what kind of preventative action is likely to be most successful?
Smoking on the Curriculum
In 2010, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) argued that information about tobacco and its impact on health should be given a much higher profile on the school curriculum, and should be included in lessons across a diverse range of subjects, including biology, chemistry, citizenship and media studies. The risk, of course, is that making young people feel ‘nagged’ or ‘preached to’ about a particular habit can push them towards adopting it instead of avoiding it, so it is crucial that these lessons are delivered in an inclusive and interesting way. Actually getting young people themselves involved in anti-smoking advocacy is a particularly effective way of achieving this.
Smoking on the TV
The problem with school advocacy is that it only goes so far when confronted with the hugely powerful influence of the media on young people. An image of a popular film star smoking in a movie where they play an aspirational character is likely to have a far greater impact on young people than a school biology lesson. But times are changing. The number of stars lighting up on screen is dropping dramatically, especially since the smoking ban in the UK has cut the realism of scenes where characters smoke indoors. And it seems to be increasingly evil and negatively portrayed characters who smoke cigarettes, while heroes are becoming increasingly ‘clean-living’. The power of the media on impressionable young people is inestimable, however, and it would be hugely helpful if some films and television shows went even further towards anti-smoking advocacy, as this would be likely to have an extremely positive impact on young people’s ideas about cigarettes.
Smoking at School
Whether or not preventative action is successful, almost all schools have to cope with the problem of smoking to some extent. One suggestion is that schools should get tougher on smoking, to dissuade pupils more powerfully from deciding to start in the first place. Many schools in the UK prescribe only relatively minor punishments for pupils caught smoking, with several offences required before serious action is taken. It is certainly possible that a lower tolerance approach might go some way towards tackling the problem.
Smoking at Home
On the other hand, others argue that it should be the responsibility of parents, not schools, to teach their children about smoking and ensure that they are leading a healthy lifestyle. It is certainly true that attitudes towards smoking are often formed at home before children even discuss the issues at school, particularly in the cases of families where a child’s own parents smoke, which can make it a particularly delicate issue for teachers to navigate.
All things considered, it seems likely that a concerted effort between each of these significant influences on children’s lives will be required if we are to make major headway against the problem of young people smoking. It is easy to imagine anti-smoking efforts by teachers being undermined by parents, or parents’ lessons being overruled by the influence of the media. The problem will not be effectively tackled until we all start working together.