Children are often under-age when they try smoking, so Forth Valley Health Board is taking steps to help them resist lighting up. Eleanor Caldwell reports
Personal and social education classes for second year pupils at Lornshill Academy in Alloa have taken on a particularly personal perspective this year. Lornshill is one of two schools in Scotland - the other is McLaren High in Callander - to have become involved in Smokefree, an anti-smoking project for young people which has been running on the Continent for the past 10 years.
Forth Valley Health Board's health promotion department organised the six-month project for S2 classes, recognising that 12-14 is a key stage when people start to smoke, even though they are not allowed legally to buy cigarettes until the age of 16. The overall aim has been to present a positive image of non-smoking, with the target of identifying the school's smoke-free class on national No Smoking Day in March.
Health promotion officer Ann McLaughlin attended monthly PSE classes with the school's eight second year classes, giving information on health risks and facts associated with smoking and asking pupils about their habits.
During each session all members of the class were breath-tested to monitor their recent smoking. Cheating would prove difficult. Principal teacher of guidance Alison Munnoch points out that pupils had no warning of when Ms McLaughlin was coming and, one girl adds, their PSE classes are mostly after lunch or break times.
Non-smokers are often surprised at how sensitive the Smokerlyser equipment is, Ms McLaughlin says, detecting even small amounts of carbon monoxide in almost everyone.
The pupils were all willing to participate in the project and generally to own up to their smoking habits. Only two classes were smoke-free from the start, but Ms McLaughlin was pleased to discover that the highest number of smokers in any of the classes was five out of an average of 25 pupils. In keeping with national trends, there were more second year girls than boys who smoked.
A mixed group purport to having had their "first wee puffs" in S2 or S1 and some go on to admit they actually started smoking in P7 and P6. They freely own up to daytime smoking on school days.
One girl, who gave up a four-month smoking habit after two of her grandparents died of lung cancer, says she sees the purpose of the Smokefree projet as "helping to stop kids starting to smoke". The young smokers are generally agreed that the project has made them think about giving up or at least reducing their intake.
They describe the information given in PSE lessons on the physical effects of nicotine as "scary stuff" and say it is frequently backed up by work in science sessions. The threat of black lungs, throat cancer and other debilitating health effects has made a potent impression on all of them.
One boy says he would like to give up for himself and also for his Mum, who does not smoke. He is not the only smoker whose parents are non-smokers.
Many of the pupils believe their parents do not know about their habit. Some have told their parents about the Smokefree project and others say they have avoided telling them in case they are suspected of smoking.
One non-smoker says he had hoped that telling his mother about the project might encourage her to give up her habit, but smokers in the group immediately come to his mother's defence on the grounds that a non-smoker cannot understand the difficulties of giving up.
Underlining this point, Ms McLaughlin says that it takes the average adult smoker six or seven attempts to stop. She adds that, despite national anti-smoking campaigns, there are few support strategies for young people wanting to kick the habit. Nicotine patches and prescription drug treatments, for example, cannot be provided to under-18s.
The success of the Smokefree scheme at Lornshill Academy has been moderate so far but significant. Some classes have shown a decrease in smoking, some have maintained the status quo but none has shown an increase.
Ms McLaughlin sees this as a positive result. "This is an age group where there is statistically always a natural increase in smoking habits. So, a significant decrease and even maintaining the status quo reflects a positive trend away from smoking."
Headteacher Alastair McLachlan is also pleased with the project. "We must never lose sight of the problem but it's important that we ring the changes in our methods of dealing with it," she says.
The Smokefree class award was presented jointly to two S2 classes at Lornshill Academy by Scotland's national foolball coach, Craig Brown, on national No Smoking Day, March 14. Now Forth Valley Health Board is considering a follow-up research project for S3 pupils next year.