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Diva Wilson and Jill Sperrazza presenting to students at PS 17

UB medical students Diva Wilson (left) and Jill Sperrazza engage fourth-graders in an interactive experience designed to build early awareness of the dangers of smoking.

Med Students Arm Youths With Knowledge to Fight Tobacco Use

Published November 25, 2014

University at Buffalo Tar Wars volunteers, including medical students, are visiting fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms in Western New York, armed with important lessons about the dangers of smoking.

“Adults who use tobacco and cigarettes long-term usually start when they’re very young. Targeting these students can prevent initiation or long-term use of these products.”
Diva Wilson
UB medical student Class of 2017; Tar Wars volunteer

Goal is Early Smoking Prevention

This year, the tobacco-free education program sponsored by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) will benefit students in more than 30 classrooms in 13 local schools, primarily Buffalo Public Schools.

Tar Wars reached more than 1,200 children in the Buffalo area last year and more than 10 million worldwide since 1988.

“Adults who use tobacco and cigarettes long-term usually start when they’re very young, even 12 or 13 years old,” says Diva Wilson, a second-year medical student and Tar Wars volunteer.

“Targeting these students can prevent initiation or long-term use of these products.”

Buffalo Program Earns National Recognition

UB’s Tar Wars coordinator Denise McGuigan, principal education specialist in the Department of Family Medicine, was honored with a 2014 Tar Wars Star Award — one of two given nationwide.

The award recognizes McGuigan’s outstanding contributions over 15 years, including efforts to make UB’s program an interprofessional endeavor. In 2013, the program trained 45 UB student volunteers pursuing medicine, nursing, public health and social work careers, including pre-med undergraduates.

“This model of interprofessional service learning has caught the attention of the health sciences administration and will serve as an example for other opportunities,” says Andrew B. Symons, MD, clinical associate professor of family medicine and vice chair for medical student education.

“We are happy to train anyone motivated to promote a tobacco-free lifestyle as a volunteer presenter,” says McGuigan, including family medicine residents, school nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, students, dental hygienists, health education professionals, community leaders and parents.

In July, McGuigan gave an invited presentation at the Tar Wars national conference in Washington, D.C. relaying the success of the UB program.

Interactive, Creative Learning

During the one-hour Tar Wars interactive classroom session, students explore various topics, including:

  • tobacco costs
  • short- and long-term effects of smoking, including cancer
  • why people smoke
  • e-cigarettes and vapes and what makes them addictive

“We encourage the presenters to engage the children actively and to be as creative as they want,” says Wilson.

How does it feel for a smoker to breathe after exercise? The young students simulate this difficult task by jumping for 15 seconds, then inhaling through a straw.

How do advertisers and manufacturers sell tobacco products? The students compare similar, eye-catching packaging for smokeless tobacco and candy.

In past years, the program has encouraged further learning through Tar Wars poster and video contests.

A child from Western New York was a national finalist in the program’s poster contest after attending one of McGuigan’s presentations; another local student won a Tar Wars national video contest.

Local Leadership Helped Program Expand

Martin Mahoney, MD ’95, PhD ’88 — now professor of oncology at Roswell Park Cancer Institute — began the Western New York Tar Wars program as a UB family medicine resident in 1997.

He also chaired the program’s national advisory board and was first author on two journal articles that detailed the program’s early success.

“These reports were historically important in helping to encourage the AAFP board to provide continued support for Tar Wars, resulting in programming for millions of fifth-grade students,” Mahoney says.