'Teaching & Learning' is a weekly column on education and related issues.

With scientific evidence showing that the early teens are the best period to convey the anti-tobacco message, the Tamil Nadu government has renewed its efforts to take this campaign actively to schools in the State.

As part of the smoke-free institutions project, the Tobacco Control Cell at the Directorate of Public Health and the Tobacco Cessation Centre of the Adyar Cancer Institute have turned their attention on schools.

The ill effects of tobacco use have been incorporated into the school education programme every Thursday. “The messages against smoking must be conveyed early to the children. During the adolescent stage, there is immense peer pressure to take up smoking. We are targeting that,” says E. Vidhubala of the TCC, Adyar Cancer Institute.

School heads too agree that the issue of tobacco should be brought up at school level. S. Bhavani Shankar, senior principal of Lalaji Omega Memorial International School, says schools also have a parenting role to play. “While there is general awareness among parents about prevalent habits in their children's peer groups, the school still has to reiterate the need to take care,” he says.

A couple of years ago, teachers of a city school were shocked to find cigarette packs in the bags of some students. “But at that age, some children simply do these things to make a point to friends. They may not even smoke,” says a high school teacher.

A lot has to do with the environment in which a student grows up in. “Positive reinforcement works. There is no point in making out things to be evil. Instead, we need to let the children develop constructive ideas and extra-curricular activities. Once a student finds an area of interest and engages in that, he or she will have little time for anything else,” Mr. Shankar adds.

A total of 1,985 schools have been enrolled under the “smoke-free” school initiative. “It has always been easy to work with the schools. Additionally, we are also ensuring that the message reaches all those in schools. You cannot have a teacher talking about anti-tobacco messages going on to smoke,” explains Prasanna Kannan, State consultant for Tobacco Control.

She adds that enquiries among shopkeepers had revealed that most of them claim they do not sell tobacco products to minors. The target now is to ensure that there is no sale of tobacco within 100 m of the school. “This should be 100 per cent. We have to make sure that this is adhered to strictly.”

More recently, the traders' association lobby was approached, with some measure of success, to involve themselves in the anti-tobacco campaign. “We had the traders' association representatives and their leader Mr. Vellayan come along with us and measure the distance from the schools. We had great support from them, and they have also promised to cooperate with every aspect, including maintaining the distance and not selling to minors and schoolchildren,” Ms. Vidhubala adds.

The Central Board of Secondary Education too has an adolescent programme for affiliated schools which deals with issues such as tobacco, drug abuse and lifestyle related aspects. “Teachers have been trained in the last few years and now they address such issues in classes,” says N. Nagaraju, Regional Officer, CBSE.

More In: Chennai