A new multi-university program, Peers Against Tobacco, aims to reduce use of tobacco and alternative tobacco products among one of the country’s heaviest user groups: college-age students.
Overseen by the Tobacco Research and Evaluation Team at The University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, and funded by the Texas Department of State Health Services, the project is being implemented at 20 Texas colleges and universities this semester.
“Almost all lifelong tobacco users start prior to the age of 26, and these college-age young adults have the highest rates of tobacco use among all age groups,” said Alexandra Loukas, director of the Tobacco Research and Evaluation Team and Barbie M. and Gary L. Coleman Professor in Education. “Granted, cigarette use has declined over the past 20 years, but alternative tobacco products like e-cigarettes and hookah have become increasingly popular.”
According to Loukas, both the flavors and marketing of these alternative products target a young audience.
“The users think they’re enjoying something harmless and aren’t aware of the health consequences,” said Loukas. “They become and often remain addicted to nicotine through this avenue.”
Universities participating in Peers Against Tobacco selected two student leaders and a supervising university administrator on each campus to carry out the project’s goals. The new volunteers received three days of training in Austin.
Each campus was given free media campaign materials such as fliers, posters and shareable social media content and access to an interactive online tobacco prevention curriculum created specifically for Texas college students by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Public Health.
Volunteers also have access to an electronic environmental scan tool they can use to assess tobacco products and advertising on and around their campuses, and a step-by-step guide that explains how students can work with administrators to change existing tobacco policies.
At the end of this semester, students on the participating campuses will be surveyed to assess changes in their attitudes about and use of tobacco. The results will be shared with students and administrators to help inform future tobacco prevention and cessation efforts.
“Our Texas college initiative is the first of its kind in the U.S.,” said Shelley Karn, a program director with the Tobacco Research and Evaluation Team. “It’s a comprehensive approach to preventing tobacco product use, with the components of the project giving students the information they need to educate their peers and improve the general health of their campuses.”
The Department of Kinesiology and Health Education is part of the university’s College of Education.