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Stanford University School of Medicine

Everything adolescents should know about the dangers of tobacco

Nicotine changes the brain. And tobacco-using adolescents are especially susceptible.

As an adolescent brain develops, nicotine alters the delicate network of neurons and synapses, increasing teens' chances of becoming addicted and making them key targets for tobacco companies.

This and many other facts can be found in a new Tobacco Prevention Toolkit, posted online last month. The toolkit, developed by faculty at Stanford, is a free set of educational material aiming to inform youths on the dangers of tobacco use and is available online for anyone to use.

Researchers have recently seen an increase in adolescent use of electronic cigarettes and hookahs, partly due to misconceptions that they are harmless. A study shows that marketers make unvalidated claims about e-cigarettes, especially that they help people quit smoking. This year, the FDA extended regulation to cover vape pens, hookah pens, and electronic cigarettes, but controls remain lax.

"Youths engage in dangerous activities in part because they don't have the knowledge they need to make healthier decisions," Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, PhD, a developmental psychologist and lead on this project, said. "If we could increase their knowledge, decrease misconceptions, and change their attitudes, then they are more likely to make healthier decisions."

Halpern-Felsher and her team asked the community for help in deciding what to include in the toolkit. They held focus groups for parents, teachers, and middle- and high-school students throughout California to explore material that may pertain to adolescents.

They noted several gaps in current tobacco education methods, namely that they don't include electronic cigarettes and rarely include biological explanations of nicotine effects on the brain.

The toolkit is a set of modules that contains slide decks, worksheets and activities describing fallacies about vape pens, methods that marketers use to sell their tobacco products, the consequences of nicotine addiction on the brain, tips on how to refuse such products, and other similar topics related to tobacco use. The material was fact-checked by addiction researchers, physicians, toxicologists and health educators.

"We needed to revamp education to match what's really going on in adolescent decision-making," Halpern-Felsher said. "We hope that this toolkit will help educators throughout California and across the country teach their students and other youths about the dangers of tobacco and ultimately reduce widespread use."

They received funding from the Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program and the California Department of Education.

Previously:  Bringing an end to smokingTeens confused about harms of marijuana and e-cigarettes, Stanford study finds and How e-cigarettes are sparking a new wave of tobacco marketing
Photo by Marius Mellebye

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