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A theatre group based in Minnesota has been busy delivering a dramatic message to children that smoking is far from “cool” (the word used by children in the United States and many other countries to describe what is trendy and worthy of attention). Two plays, both produced by the Minneapolis-based National Theatre for Children (NTC), are being performed to schoolchildren about the dangers of smoking, using humour and imagination to get across their message. During the academic year from October 1997 to May 1998, NTC and sponsor Allina Health System took 2 Smart 2 Smoke to 162 Minnesota elementary schools.
The 2 Smart 2 Smoke productions are aimed at children as young as five, in the knowledge that children’s erroneous perceptions about smoking begin very early in life. The group set out to use live theatre, along with curricular materials for use in the classroom and at home, to teach children about the perils of beginning nicotine use.
An early elementary production for kindergarten to third grade (ages 5–9) is an adaptation of the Three Little Pigs, in which the Big Bad Wolf is in jeopardy of losing his huffing-and-puffing job because his not-so-cool cigarette addiction has caused shortness of breath and fits of coughing. After also being turned down by Little Red Riding Hood for a lesser role, due to bad breath and smelly clothes, the Big Bad Wolf stops smoking for good to regain his old job.
A science-fiction show for older elementary children, grades 4–6 (ages 9–12), has rocket ships, space aliens, and a plot about greedy tobacco companies attempting to get “people” on other planets hooked on cigarettes. The planet Tramsos seems to be the perfect setting for exploiting a huge new market. But in the end, smoking, smokers, and the cigarette sellers simply seem silly.
NTC had asked Minnesota-based Allina Health System to help develop and sponsor 2 Smart 2 Smoke with the goal of reaching thousands of schoolchildren with messages about the dangers of smoking. As tobacco control is one of Allina’s principal priorities, in view of the impact it has on its members and their health, the elementary school anti-smoking plays were a natural place to focus efforts.
Since the project was launched in Autumn 1997, the programme has been seen by thousands of children in grades 1–6 in the metropolitan area of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, as well as by their families and teachers.
The curriculum is designed to provide awareness, understanding, and endorsement of the reasons not to smoke, and the organisers report that children come away from the productions with the key messages: “smoking is dumb” and “smoking is not cool”. Teachers have been very enthusiastic about the programme.
A team headed by Dr Cheryl Perry of the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health is analysing tests taken by 3200 children before and after watching the productions last Autumn, and who took part in classroom activities, and carried home follow-up workbooks.
2 Smart 2 Smoke has been so well received by students, teachers, and parents that NTC and Allina now have expanded the programme to 80 additional Minnesota locations, with community support from the Minnesota Medical Association and the Smoke-Free Coalition of Minnesota. The programme will reach 180 000 school-age children in Minnesota over two school years.
Although lasting effects of these educational efforts are still unknown, the early signs are encouraging. Children seem to remember the messages better because of the humorous, memorable, and effective way they are delivered. Even without the research results, America’s largest healthcare management company, United HealthCare Corporation, has decided to underwrite a tour of 2 Smart 2 Smoke across the United States at the beginning of next year.
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