Advertising leads many young people to believe that smoking cigarettes makes them grown-up, fun and sexy.
However, thanks to an anti-smoking CD-ROM created by UNT professors, thousands of Texas middle schoolers know that smoking causes cancer, cuts the wind they need for sports and makes their breath stink.
"They try to make tobacco cool," says Jake Bowden, a sixth-grader at Coppell Middle School North. "But I know smoking is bad. It smells bad, and it does bad stuff to you."
Exposing the truth
Bowden is among some 100,000 sixth- to 10th-graders who have seen Unfiltered: Exposing the Truth Behind a Pack of Lies over the last three years in their health, social studies, language arts or physical education classes. The CD was sent
to every public middle and junior high school in the state.
Funded by tobacco settlement money through the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in two rounds of grants totaling $513,070, Unfiltered is an interdisciplinary,
collaborative project across several UNT departments.
Kids can view 18 five- to seven-minute interactive learning modules about the health risks and the reality of smoking, and also see a video about teen social life and ways to stop smoking.
The CD is quite graphic. Rather than glamorous models, students are shown photos of a man who has lost his entire lower jaw to cancer and hear a woman gasping through emphysema that she hopes to live a few more weeks until
her daughter's wedding.
They also view videos of other teenagers talking candidly about how smoking has already affected them, and how they wish they'd never begun.
Unfiltered is designed to generate the same emotional impact on kids that tobacco ads do, in hopes of keeping them from smoking during the vulnerable teenage years when more than 90 percent of smokers pick up the habit.
"Essentially, we wanted to create a CD that speaks directly to middle school students, making sure it is intellectually and emotionally targeted to their level," says Celia Williamson, associate professor and special assistant to UNT's provost and one of three project co-directors. For that reason, Unfiltered focuses squarely on what resonates with teens.
"They relate to now. That smoking causes your breath to stink is more important to them than that it might give you cancer someday."
- CD co-creator Celia Williamson referring to Unfiltered's middle school audience
"(Age) 30 is way, way ahead in their future," says Williamson, who at the time of Unfiltered's creation was chair of the Department of Rehabilitation, Social Work and Addictions. "They relate to now. That smoking causes your breath to stink is more important to them than that it might give you lung cancer someday. We focused on how smoking impacts you and your family and peers right now."
Adds Michael Gibson, associate professor of communication design in the School of Visual Arts who served as Unfiltered's creative director and design team leader, "We flipped perceptions, like the one that says smoking is your path to adulthood. We let kids tell other kids that it makes your clothes smell, gives you more blackheads and makes your hair brittle."
The approach seems to be working. Teachers and school nurses who submitted evaluations about Unfiltered give it high marks for generating interest and making a "desirable impact" on students, according to Gibson.
James Hall, an eighth-grade science teacher at Denton's Calhoun Middle School, says that "showing kids diseased organs and letting them hear smokers talking makes a real impact. … I truly believe many of my kids will never smoke because of that CD."
Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) officer Andy Wheeler of Coppell Middle School North is just as adamant about his sixth-graders, remarking that "once they see that CD-ROM, there is no way they will have a cigarette."
The teachers say students are most impressed by the photos of sick smokers, and secondarily by vanity issues.
"They can't take their eyes off the pictures, even the most gross," Wheeler says. "I can talk all day, but it doesn't really connect until they see the visuals. Then they are aghast."
The photo of the jawless man gets a big response in Hall's classroom.
"They look again and again. They see that smokers often eventually have bad health problems," Hall remarks.
Boys also react to videotaped young smokers telling how smoking hurt their wind so they had to drop sports, while girls respond to talk about bad breath, yellow teeth and wrinkles, the teachers say.
Jake Bowden's classmate Keely Leonard, 11, found the CD "kind of scary" because it features "a bunch of people who smoked younger in life and got really sick and had problems all over their bodies. It made me dislike smoking even more."
Nate Hruby, 12, says the CD convinced him never to smoke.
"It would ruin my life in tons and tons of ways," he says.
And 11-year-old Mackenzie Moore was horrified by the man with the missing jaw — "That was really, really gross."
Those are just the reactions Williamson, Gibson and Don Louis, who pursues external funding for the Department of Rehabilitation, Social Work and Addictions, had hoped for when they first met in late 1999.
They were brainstorming project ideas to meet the coordinating board grant requirements — using Texas' tobacco settlement funds to produce and distribute programs that would combat tobacco use among young Texans.
Texas received about $17 billion, to be paid over 25 years, in a 1998 settlement awarding massive funds to fight tobacco use.
Louis was the primary author of the UNT grants, which were approved in March 2000 and again in February 2002 — Unfiltered's second version improves the CD's user navigation and adds anti-smoking ads targeting Latino youth that were developed by another project funded by the coordinating board.
Gibson says the team, with assistance from some 25 UNT students in communication design, photography, printmaking, music, computer science, social work, journalism, and radio, television and film, conducted more than 60 hours of filming, interviewed about 30 teen smokers, programmed the CD and wrote a script and teacher's manual.
Gibson and several teachers who were committed to the project built support around the state with 15 in-service teacher presentations.
To reach every child, the team made Unfiltered fully compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, Louis notes. Dialog appears in text for students with hearing impairments, and students who are blind can print out a Braille transcript.
And though used most widely in Texas schools, Gibson says a unique factor has helped in Unfiltered's adoption by school districts in Hawaii, South Dakota and Minnesota: The CD isn't copyrighted.
"We encourage piracy," Gibson declares. "We want this to get distributed wherever possible.
"People ask us about licensing. I love to say there is no licensing — use as many as you need, and don't hesitate to burn a few dozen and give them to your friends and colleagues."
Some Reasons to Quit Smoking and Stay Clean
- Hocking up loogies will never look sexy.
- You'll discover what your girlfriend's perfume really smells like.
- Your risk of suffering a stroke will decrease by 50 percent.
- You'll add seven to 20 years to your life.
- Chemotherapy is less likely to be in your future.
- Belching your words out through a hole in your throat is really hard.
- You won't have to use your imagination to taste your food.
- Adult smokers have greater difficulty fathering children than non-smokers.
- Your smile will become more white and less yellow.
- Your breath shouldn't smell worse than your dog's.
- Impotence can be really hard on your love life.
- You won't look like you're 40 when you're only 30.
- Lifelong smokers spend at least $65,000 on cigarettes.
- Lifelong smokers eventually build up seven pounds of tar in their lungs.
- Smokers get 30 percent more zits than non-smokers.
- Smoking makes your car stink.
- The burn marks on your clothes won't wash out.
- Smokers have to waste sick days actually being sick.
- There's still no cure for cancer.
- Smokers are twice as likely as non-smokers to suffer early tooth loss.
- It's hard to dance while you're attached to an oxygen tank.
- Your lungs will never wind up in an anti-smoking CD.
— from Unfiltered 2.0: Exposing
the Truth Behind a Pack of Lies — Again
Editor's note: To receive a free copy of the CD, contact Don Louis at (940) 565-4764 or email@example.com, or contact Michael Gibson at (940) 369-7233 or firstname.lastname@example.org.