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Posted June 1, 2012

Congress 2012

Schools get an F for keeping girls from smoking

Ottawa professor says gender-based anti-smoking programs needed

Waterloo - A University of Ottawa professor says the education system is not doing enough to prevent young people, and in particular young women, from taking up smoking.

Sharon Cook, a Distinguished University Professor who teaches in the Faculty of Education, says it’s well known that women and men smoke for different reasons.

Yet she says the education system, when it attempts to dissuade young people from taking up the tobacco habit, does not address the real differences in gender-related behaviour.

Cook, whose research looks at the historical development of the reasons why men and women smoke, is presenting her work at the 2012 Congress of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

“My fault-taking is very much with educational authorities,” says Cook, explaining that health authorities know how to tweak the anti-smoking message to appeal to each gender.

But she says schools haven’t been doing that.

“Our programs to address smoking are laughably inept,” she says. “The school curriculum doesn’t distinguish between boys and girls. If you were to look at the anti-smoking curriculum in 1892 and 2012, you wouldn’t find much difference.”

Cook explains that research shows that men often smoke because they are bored.

But females, she says, take up smoking for very different and more complex reasons: They do it to control their weight, or handle stress, or to have something to do with their hands, or even to complete their “look.”

“The attraction for women is mainly social,” says Cook, adding that she thinks the reasons females take up smoking haven’t changed since the end of the Second World War. Right now in Canada, young female smokers outnumber the young males: In the 18-to-24-year-old range, Cook says 20 per cent of females smoke, compared to 18 per cent of males. And females, she adds, find it harder to quit than males.

Though people know smoking is bad for them, she says “smoking is not an intellectual act, it’s an emotional act.” Cook argues that it is possible to change behaviour on a large scale; she points to the success of campaigns against drinking and driving.

“There was a time when adolescents actively drank alcohol and drove,” she says. “And we have, in urban settings, made a major change in the way adolescents party. We could do this with smoking if we wanted to.”

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