LONDON (Reuters) - Getting the cool kids to talk to their peers about the dangers of smoking cut the number of young people who started using cigarettes in one study by nearly 25 percent, British researchers said on Friday.
The study published in the journal Lancet took a different approach than most tobacco cessation programmes aimed at youths by asking students to nominate others they viewed as influential or leaders to spread the anti-smoking message.
This peer selection proved more effective than conventional programmes and greatly reduced the number of students likely to start smoking, the researchers said.
“The important thing this shows is that young people can help each other from taking up the addictive habit of smoking,” said Rona Campbell, a health researcher at the University of Bristol who helped lead the study.
“If the programme was taken up widely it could cut the recruitment of new smokers significantly.”
Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the world, causing heart disease, several kinds of cancer, emphysema and other ailments. Both smokers and those who have to breathe their smoke are affected.
Worldwide an estimated 10 percent of students aged 13- to 15-years old smoke cigarettes, with the highest rates in European countries at 19 percent, according to the Global Tobacco Surveillance System.
The study involved nearly 11,000 students aged 12 to 13 in 59 schools across western England and Wales. Of these, 29 schools were randomly selected to continue normal anti-smoking programmes and the rest tried the new approach.
The researchers asked them to nominate influential students and then invited these popular students to take part in a training programme about the risks of smoking and benefits of not starting.
Children who already smoked could take part as leaders so long as they agreed to try to quit. The leaders spread the information gained in the training informally during everyday conversations and interactions with others.
The results were significant. Students in the peer selection group were 23 percent less likely to start smoking after one year and 15 percent less likely after two years than young people in schools with traditional cessation programmes.
This would translate into a potential reduction of 43,000 14- to 15-year olds who take up smoking each year, Campbell said in a telephone interview.
Studies also show the damage done by smoking takes decades to accumulate, so people who start young have more health risks later.
Reporting by Michael Kahn; Editing by Maggie Fox and Mary Gabriel