By Ron Scherer, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
Educators are targeting younger and younger children to teach them about the dangers of smoking.
The efforts now extend to kindergarten children - almost all of whom are not interested in smoking at all. But antismoking groups believe the only way to counter the effects of tobacco company marketing, peer pressure, and adult smoking is to start educating children well before they are interested in tobacco products.
Recently, Scholastic Magazine and the American Lung Association introduced a new book, "The Berenstain Bear Scouts and the Sinister Smoke Ring," which is aimed at second- to fifth-grade children. Last year, the American Medical Association (AMA) began a cartoon character, "The Extinguisher," a superhero who rescues kids who are going to vending machines for cigarettes or wearing clothing promoting tobacco products. The cartoon character, supplemented by an actor who travels around the US, is aimed at children kindergarten through Grade 5. And Weekly Reader, which competes with Scholastic, is planning an April cover story for Grades 3 to 6 on the detrimental effects of smoking. Antismoking advocates believe it's worth trying such approaches. "We don't know if it will be successful unless we try it," says Nancy Kaufman, a vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, N.J. She says one reason past efforts have failed is because they have been one-shot programs in health classes. Instead, she says what may be successful is teaching kids about smoking in media literacy classes, social studies, or other areas that have a context kids can relate to. Influence of peers, ads Trying to reach younger children is a necessity, says John Pierce, a professor of cancer prevention at the University of California, San Diego. Mr. Pierce says research has shown that kids start the process of smoking prior to the age of experimentation, which is usually ages 12 to 15. William Novelli, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, observes that most children start off with a dislike of tobacco. Most preteens consider smoking "yucky" or "dirty" and are repelled when they smell cigarettes. But only a few years later, some of those same children are willing to try a cigarette with a friend. "Something happens," Mr. Novelli says. "Some of it is peer persuasion, some of it is advertising and marketing." To measure susceptibility to smoking, researchers ask children if they would be willing to take a cigarette from a friend. If a child says he or she "probably" won't take the cigarette, Pierce has found the child is at risk to smoke. Pierce's research has found that at age 10, 15 percent of the children said they "probably" wouldn't take the cigarette, while 85 percent said they "definitely" would not. By age 13, 50 percent indicated they "probably" would not. "The susceptibility is there at a younger age," Pierce says. Initially, it seems as if it would be easy to reach young kids with an antismoking message. But according to Stan Berenstain, author of the Bear Scout book, it's not so simple. Twelve years ago, then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop suggested to Mr. Berenstain that he write an antismoking book using his bears. "He observed that kids found the characters persuasive," says Berenstain, who resisted because he found it too difficult to handle smoking issues, such as peer pressure and advertising, in the 32-page format he used at a previous publisher. After he joined Scholastic in 1995, he started writing longer, more complex books, designed for a slightly older readers. Scholastic agreed to publish a 116-page book, in which the Bear Scouts face the advertising prowess of the Moose Tobacco Company and its Moe Moose mascot. …