February 1, 1997
The Marlboro Man didn't make much of an impression on sixth graders in Metairie's J.D. Meisler Junior High School. "He looks like a redneck," said one student as a slide of a burly, macho man in a Marlboro cigarette advertisement popped up on the screen in front of his class. A slide depicting Joe Camel, on the other hand, elicited shouts of recognition and murmurs of approval from the group.
The cool, debonair cartoon character who hawks Camel cigarettes in magazines and on billboards across the country seemed to strike a chord with these 11-year-olds. And that's the problem, say members of Tulane's DOC program, who came to the school in December to give a presentation on the health effects of tobacco use.
DOC stands for Doctors Ought to Care, a national organization of health professionals, teachers, business leaders and others drawn together to counter the promotion of unhealthy lifestyles by the mass media. Sixty-five Tulane medical students formed the local DOC chapter in 1995 and have since visited 4,000 students in 15 elementary, middle and high schools in the area with programs on tobacco, AIDS and nutrition.
More than 50 students from the medical and public health schools have joined the organization's ranks this year. Fighting pervasive advertisements and ingrained poor health habits takes creativity and energy, said Tracy Maclay, DOC president and second-year medical student. Programs must be as least as interesting and entertaining as the messages from the media. "The presentations are corny and funny," she added.
At Meisler Junior High, public health students and DOC members Sophia Chen and Deshan Foret capitalized on the typical sixth grader's love of the gross and absurd. Lampooning an ad that showed a handsome young man claiming he "smokes for taste," the DOC version depicted a man with cigarettes up his nose, claiming "I smoke for smell." Virginia Slims' famous slogan, "You've come a long way, baby," became "You smell from far away, baby." "Marlboro" morphed into "Barfboro."
The crowd of students responded with giggles and appreciative snorts. The students also seemed to understand the manipulative nature of cigarette advertisements. A Misty cigarette ad featuring an attractive, laughing, young woman "tries to make you think you'll look sassy and cool if you smoke," said a female student. A Newport advertisement with frolicking yuppies gives the impression that "you'll be popular if you smoke," said another student.
The DOC students are no milquetoasts when it comes to blasting cigarette manufacturers. "Camel is targeting young people with its Joe Camel character," Foret told the students. "If they get kids to smoke, then you'll get addicted to the nicotine and the cigarette companies will have more customers." The presenters sprinkle medical and health information amid the jokes and games. Students learn that more than 500,000 deaths per year are due to tobacco-induced diseases and that the majority of teens who smoke have tried to quit once but were unsuccessful.
The medical and public health community have the knowledge and the duty to present this kind of information to students, Maclay said. "It's very important that medical school and public health students get out and teach prevention," she said. "It's so good teaching experience for us." Medical students also get credit for their DOC volunteer work through the Foundations in Medicine course [see April 1996 Inside Tulane].
In the spring, DOC plans to add presentations on violence, pregnancy prevention and sexual decision-making. Bren Boston, a first-year medical student, said the personal rewards compensate for the time spent giving the presentations.
"DOC has been one of the most enjoyable things about my first year at Tulane," she said. "I really wanted to get involved in the anti-smoking campaign. I'm allergic to smoke and I know people who are truly addicted and really, really want to stop but can't. I think that medical students can help convince students not to start smoking if we tell them the negative medical and health consequences."
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