Twenty years ago, Jeffrey J. Cain, MD, founder of Denver Doctors Ought to Care (DOC), and Glenna Pember, representing the Hall of Life at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, created a small innovative youth tobacco-free education program.
Their goal was to reach students at an early age and provide them with the tools to make positive decisions regarding their health and promote personal responsibility for their well-being, recalls Dr. Cain, currently chief of Family Medicine at The Children’s Hospital. That first year, they were able to reach about 7,000 students in the Denver area.
From the beginning, the program was very popular with the students and teachers. Responding to both the need and demand, they expanded the program statewide and received permission from George Lucas of Star Wars fame to use the Tar Wars name. Today, the program is being presented in all 50 states and 14 other countries. More than seven million students worldwide have been reached since that modest beginning in 1988. The program was formally endorsed by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) in 1993 and officially became a national program of AAFP in 2000. In Colorado, 121 schools are participating in this year’s program being conducted by the Colorado Academy of Family Physicians (CAFP).
Tar Wars utilizes family physicians and youth educators to present a tobacco-free lesson plan to fourth and fifth grade classes. During the classroom presentation, students engage in a series of activities designed to increase their knowledge of the short-term effective of tobacco use, illustrate the costs of using tobacco, help them identify reasons why people use tobacco, and prompt them to think about how the tobacco industry markets its products to youth.
The free presentation is followed by a poster contest where children create their own advertisement for living tobacco-free. The schools select winning posters to compete in a state competition. State and international winning posters then are judged at a national Tar Wars Poster Contest in Washington, D.C.
Tar Wars has been shown to be effective in increasing student understanding of the short-term image-based consequences of tobacco use. It also has raised their awareness of the deceptive tactics found in tobacco advertising.
A 2006 study conducted by a Colorado team of family physicians, utilizing both quantitative and qualitative evaluations, concluded that the program increased students’ knowledge and understanding about the short term consequences, truth of tobacco advertising and peer norms. The study, headed by Dr. Cain and published in the November, 2006 issue of the Journal of the American Board of Family Physicians, also showed that Tar Wars meets CDC guidelines as one component of effective comprehensive youth tobacco free education.
The program has received multiple awards over the years from national and international organizations, including the World Health Organization, U.S. Secretary of Health, the American Medical Association and AAFP.