What happened to Tar Wars?

Tags: Jeff Cain, MD, Glenna Pember, Hall of Life and Doctors Ought to Care, tar wars, perdita henry, TAFP Commission on Public Health, tobacco trends, poster competition

By Perdita Henry

In 1988, Jeff Cain, MD, and Glenna Pember, of the Hall of Life and Doctors Ought to Care, had an idea about keeping kids away from tobacco products. They would go on to create Tar Wars, an educational program for fourth- and fifth-grade students. In the 30 years since the first class, Tar Wars has reached more than 10 million children across the globe. The program was eventually bought by AAFP and it became an opportunity for local family physicians, residents, and students to visit classrooms and discuss the health risks associated with smoking, the financial costs of the habit, and the sneaky ways advertisers market their product to young people. In the last few years, the program hasn’t seemed to bring the passion and excitement that it once did. The TAFP Commission on Public Health, Clinical Affairs, and Research wants to see that change.

At a number of commission meetings, members have reminisced about visiting children in their community and teaching them the importance of remaining tobacco free. Visiting schools with the Tar Wars message, by all accounts, seemed to bring joy to students and participating physicians alike. “I loved those mornings at school,” says John Carroll, MD. “I had five classrooms to visit and I spent 35 to 40 minutes with each. We flew through the discovery of being targeted by the second largest public advertising campaign.” After spending time with their local physician, the kids had the opportunity to create their own posters featuring their personal brand of tobacco-free messaging. Those posters were then submitted to state chapters and one would be chosen as the state winner. The Texas winner would receive the prize of hotel and airfare to present at the Tar Wars National Poster competition.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking kills more than 480,000 Americans each year and 41,000 of those deaths are from secondhand smoke. Prior to the emergence of e-cigarettes, tobacco use among high school students was on the decline. In fact, in 2015 the CDC reported that 36.4 percent of high school students said they smoked at least once a day in 1997. By the time 2013 rolled around, that number dropped to 15.7 percent. That trend began to reverse in 2015 when 16 percent of high school students reported using e-cigarettes. In 2016, the increase in high school students turning to e-cigarettes dropped to 11.3 percent. As e-cigarettes, hookah pipes, and other smoking products — heavily featuring flavored tobacco — are introduced to the market, Tar Wars has reflected the changes in time and technology. Tar Wars presenters remind kids that just because products no longer look or taste like the traditional cigarette, that doesn’t mean any of the risks associated with smoking have gone away.

AAFP no longer holds the national poster competition, but they remain dedicated to the program. The Tar Wars material is updated to reflect the latest in tobacco trends and the health risks associated with new products. In Texas, students can still submit posters, but for some reason they aren’t. The TAFP Commission on Public Health, Clinical Affairs, and Research would love to see this program flourish once more and hopes to have posters to judge this year.

If you have presented Tar Wars at your local schools this past October, November, or December, or if you are planning to this January, February, or March, be sure to share the poster competition opportunity with teachers. The poster submission deadline is April 1, 2018, and the winner will receive a $150 gift card courtesy of TAFP.

“So many school children experience doctors in the light of their own illness or shots,” Carroll says. “To see us laughing with them and engaging in a school activity, makes family physicians into real people who care about their future. Twenty years later, I still have adults come up to me and tell me how that day shaped their attitude and their choice to be tobacco-free.”

For more information about Tar Wars, the poster competition, and how to bring the program to a school near you, click here. For additional Tar Wars teaching tools, click here.

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