Initiative using peer pressure for good

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trying to persuade teenagers to do – or not to do – something is notoriously difficult.

Having an adult telling them why they should steer clear could lead them straight into temptation.

But get a friend or classmate to talk to them, and they’re much more likely to listen.

It’s this idea that a scheme operating in Leeds is using to reduce the numbers of young people taking up smoking.

Among adults, 23 per cent of the city’s residents currently smoke.

As two-thirds of smokers take up the habit as teenagers, stopping youngsters from starting in the first place can make a big difference in the long term.

Students at Swallow Hill High School in Wortley, Leeds, have taken part in a programme designed to do just this.

ASSIST, which is supported by Leeds City Council, is a national scheme which uses the concept of young people themselves delivering the message to their peers.

Sally Good, chief operating officer of Decipher ASSIST – the not-for-profit company which developed the initiative, said: “Sometimes messages are more effectively transmitted from student to student, from peers of the same age, rather than from teacher to student.

“It works on the premise that if the person delivering it has something in common with the person receiving it, it’s more likely to be taken on board.”

Through the scheme, 12 and 13-year-olds become peer supporters by being nominated by their classmates.

“The students nominate the people in their year group that they look up to and respect,” Sally added.

At this stage, young people aren’t given much information about the aim of the scheme.

Those nominated, as long as they agree, then undergo two days of training outside school, provided by external trainers.

Sally explained: “They get lots of information about tobacco, do activities, practical things and games.”

During the workshops, the young people are told about the links between smoking and topics including the environment, health, appearance and tobacco economics.

They’re asked to discuss the issues with their friends and fellow students and over the next 10 weeks, have follow-up sessions at school to see how their getting on and help hone their skills.

“The idea is that they have individual conversations,” Sally said.

“It could be as they’re walking to go into a lesson. We give them information on lots of topics – it might be how smoking affects your breathing, and they tailor it according to who they are talking to.”

It’s a successful formula - a study of ASSIST proved it reduced the uptake.

In Leeds, the programme is delivered by youth workers from Youth Point, a charity based in the Cardigan Centre, Leeds.

Youth worker Gemma Williams said: “It’s been great being involved in delivering such a unique programme to schools in Leeds. The ASSIST programme gives young people the opportunity to learn about the effects of smoking on health and the benefits of remaining smokefree in a fun and creative manner. The young people feel motivated and confident in their role as peer supporters.”

Martin Stewart, a teacher at Swallow Hill, added: “The skills acquired by the pupils go far beyond the anti-smoking focus and have helped them develop into peer mentors, as well as doing wonders for their self-esteem. I’m confident the course aim of reducing smoking in young people will be successful and highly recommend the course to others.”

Coun Lisa Mulherin, Leeds City Council’s executive board member for health and wellbeing said: “ASSIST is based on evidence that has shown less young people taking up smoking after the programme. World No Tobacco Day provides a great opportunity to encourage other schools in areas of high smoking prevalence to consider taking part in this programme.”

* Interested schools should contact Gemma Williams on 0113 274 9959 or email

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