One third of all cancers could be eliminated if people stopped smoking cigarettes. Equally disturbing, teenagers are tempted to smoke at a disproportionate rate, with nearly nine out of 10 smokers lighting up for the first time by age 18. Translation: If children stop smoking now, millions will avoid cancer later.
MD Anderson’s Tobacco Outreach Education Program (TOEP) and Gloria Hicks, a member of the MD Anderson Cancer Center Board of Visitors (BOV), don’t lose sight of these facts when it comes to childhood tobacco use. The two forces teamed up, encouraging 5,000 Corpus Christi-area middle school students to “kick the butts” at a Corpus Christi Ice Rays hockey game in February.
“It started with the kids pouring out of buses and cheerleaders welcoming them with a drum line and a band,” says Lauren McCoy, program manager for TOEP. “During intermissions between the three periods of the hockey game, we introduced them to props highlighting some of the chemicals in tobacco.”
The props included a fake rat, symbolizing the arsenic found in rat poison; fake roaches, symbolizing the nicotine found in roach spray; a toilet brush, symbolizing the ammonia found in toilet cleaner; nail polish remover, symbolizing acetone; and a paint brush, symbolizing the lead in paint.
“Children’s susceptibility to their friends offering them cigarettes is one of the greatest risk factors,” says Karen Calabro, Dr.P.H., behavioral science instructor. “That’s why we want to institute some deep learning in them so when they get in a situation where it’s emotional and they’re feeling pressured, they’ll have the right answer and say, ‘No, I don’t want to smoke.’”
While MD Anderson provided the scientific material for the smoking prevention messages, Hicks found the arena and filled it with children. She even convinced the Ice Rays to play at 10 a.m. instead of later that evening as previously planned.
“I talked to the school districts, and they were interested. Then I talked to the American Bank Center arena, and they were thrilled to have MD Anderson present a program,” Hicks says. “But the districts cannot pay for bus transportation for the kids. So I asked MD Anderson board members in the Corpus Christi community for a donation, and every one of them contributed.”
This year’s event was Hicks’ second smoking prevention effort in Corpus Christi. The first was in 2010, inspired by a similar event fellow BOV member Regina Rogers held in Beaumont. Hicks seized the opportunity to introduce schools in her community to MD Anderson’s ASPIRE program (A Smoking Prevention Interactive Experience).
Alexander Prokhorov, M.D., Ph.D., professor of behavioral science and director of TOEP, developed ASPIRE to curb tobacco use among teens through animations, videos and interactive exercises. The web-based program has reached nearly 16,000 young users in Texas and around the world and is available for free installation in school systems.
“This is one of the best programs available today that addresses smoking prevention and cessation,” says Prokhorov. “Smoking during adolescence can lead to a lifetime dependence on nicotine. The best way to cure cancer is to never get it. So our mission is to prevent cancer as early as possible through changing lifestyles.”
To anti-smoking enthusiasts who want to host prevention seminars in their own hometowns, Hicks offers her “two-cents” from past experience.
“Everybody wants to help. They just don’t think to ask,” she says. “Sure, you might get a few no’s, but you don’t get many. When it comes to children and spreading the message of anti-smoking, I think everyone can agree that’s a message we all want to get out.”