Kids in North-West taught dangers of smoking through power of sport

With high rates of children taking up smoking every year in the UK, a project in the North-West looked to reverse the trend by highlighting the dangers of smoking to school kids through the power of sport.  

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Previous research has found that smoking is a habit often started in childhood, with approximately 207,000 children starting to smoke each year in the UK. This has the potential to increase the likelihood of early mortality from smoking-related illnesses.

Preventing children from taking up the habit is an important public health priority and academics in the North-West recognised that sport was increasingly being used as a way to support health promotion messages.

Inspiration was taken from abroad and one such example was the Dutch ‘Health Scores!’ programme. Combining the use of professional football players as role models with a school-based programme, public health leaders in Holland successfully promoted a healthy diet and physical activity to socially vulnerable young people aged 10 to 14 years old.

In September 2012, primary schools in two local authorities in Merseyside were invited to participate in SmokeFree Sports (SFS), a multi-component sport-for-health intervention led by Liverpool John Moores University in partnership with Liverpool City Council.

The first of its kind in the UK, SFS was an evidence-based solution to prevent smoking among nine to ten year old primary school children. The programme was delivered to more than 1,000 Year 5 children across 32 Liverpool primary schools between October 2012 and May 2013, with 11 primary schools in Knowsley following their usual routines and acting as a comparison group.

The initiative employed a variety of innovative strategies to promote health messages to children including: training sports coaches and teachers to deliver smoke-free messages; delivering sport sessions in schools; school assemblies visited by local sports star; and asking children to sign a pledge to be smoke-free.

Through SFS, children also played games that helped raised awareness of the health dangers of smoking, the effect of smoking on sports performance, how to avoid peer pressure to smoke, as well as the benefits of physical activity.

To further drive the health messages home, participating schools also received visits from Team GB athletes, including Natasha Jonas (boxing), Tom Wolfenden (badminton) and Matt Lee (Handball). Coaches from Everton in the Community, the Liverpool Football Foundation and Liverpool City council’s Sportslinx also supported the programme.

Dr Lawrence Foweather, SmokeFree Sports Project lead, said: “More than 200,000 children aged 11-15 start smoking each year so prevention efforts are really important. SmokeFree Sports sought to use physical activity to encourage children to engage in health education in a fun, interactive learning environment. We had really positive feedback from children, teachers and coaches about the intervention.” 

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 SFS also developed other initiatives to further reduce smoking in-front of children. In 2011 SFS supported voluntary sports clubs to adopt smoke-free policies on their playing fields and in 2012,  encouraged organisations and individuals to sign up to the SmokeFree Sports Charter.

Community sports clubs in the North-West working with children and young people were initially approached to adopt smoke-free policies for their playing fields. However, they were reluctant to sign-up as the sports clubs mistakenly thought that because their children didn’t smoke, they didn’t need such policies.

In response, SFS developed the Charter that aimed to promote awareness that sports clubs did have a role to play in smoking prevention. By signing up to the Charter it was not only about educating children but also teaching parents about positive behaviours, especially those that smoked on the side-lines.

The Charter has since seen more than 250 individuals and organisations register their support, principally in the North-West, and this has helped raise awareness among sporting organisations that they have a role to play in health promotion.  

More recently, Dr Foweather is working with HealthyStadia to disseminate the SFS project more widely. HealthyStadia is European network that supports sports clubs, stadium operators and governing bodies of sport to develop health promoting policies and practices in and around stadiums that can contribute to improved levels of public health amongst fans, stadium workforces and local communities.

For more information on SFS you can read the academic paper on the BMC Public Health website or for information on how you can start your own initiatives to use sports as a positive vehicle for change, contact Dr Foweather via email.

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