“Tar Wars” targets students in fight against tobacco

March 21, 2013

A long time ago, in classrooms not very far away, WellSpan physicians began teaching young people about the dangers of tobacco.

Recently WellSpan’s chapter of the national “Tar Wars” program was recognized for its excellence.

The WellSpan York Hospital Family Medicine Residency Program, which operates Tar Wars in York County, received an award at the national conference in Washington D.C. Residency coordinator Christie Colon also received an individual award for her efforts.

Tar Wars, a service of the American Academy of Family Physicians, educates children about tobacco-use before it’s too late. WellSpan is a 15-year participant in the program.

“Our residents and faculty go out to schools around the county, and they talk to fourth and fifth-grade students about the effects of smoking,” Colon explained.

Last year, residents and faculty members delivered a total of 39 presentations, reaching nearly 1,000 students. Those figures are some of the highest in the nation.

Tar Wars presenters talk about the health effects of smoking, as well as topics like peer pressure, the marketing of smoking as a cool habit, and its long-term financial cost.

“The kids are almost universally excited to see us,” said chief resident Quincy Harberger, M.D. “You don’t have to encourage them a whole lot to get them to participate and ask questions.”

To simulate smoking’s impact on healthy lungs, presenters ask volunteers to run in place while breathing through a straw. They also pass out coloring books and word-search puzzles.

Andre Lijoi, M.D., is a Tar Wars presenter, a physician at the Thomas Hart Family Practice Center at WellSpan York Hospital, and associate program director of the WellSpan York Hospital Family Medicine Residency Program. He said it’s important to prepare children for the onslaught of cigarette advertising they will encounter as teens.

“We know that if you don’t start smoking by age 25 you’re not going to start, so tobacco marketers target young people,” Lijoi said. Presenters pass around magazine ads, asking students to describe their impressions.

“We look at the pictures and the words, and we talk about what they are telling us about smoking,” Lijoi said. “Then we look at that little black box on the bottom with the Surgeon General’s warning, and discuss what that’s telling us about smoking.”

Lijoi has overseen Tar Wars at WellSpan since the very beginning. Like a Jedi master, he trains new residents to give the hour-long presentations.

“It’s an opportunity for our residents to learn patient education in a group setting,” he said. “Invariably, they come back saying they had a great time.”

Harberger agrees that the experience is fulfilling, and believes it has made him a better physician.

“We get that exposure to the community, which is such a foundation of family medicine,” he said.