UB medical students bring ‘Tar Wars’ tobacco-free message to hundreds of fourth and fifth graders

Diva Wilson (L) and Jill Sperrazza

Fourth-graders in PS 17 ask UB medical students Diva Wilson (L) and Jill Sperrazza about the consequences of smoking. (Photo credit: Nancy J. Parisi)

By Ryan McCarthy

Release Date: November 17, 2014

This year, Denise McGuigan of UB's Dept. of Family Medicine, was awarded one of only two national Tar Wars awards, honoring those who have siignificantly contributed to the effort.

BUFFALO, N.Y.— As the Great American Smokeout gets adult smokers thinking about quitting this week, hundreds of elementary school children will learn from University at Buffalo medical students about why they should never start smoking, thanks to a  national tobacco-free education program called Tar Wars.

Sponsored by the American Academy of Family Physicians, Tar Wars promotes a tobacco-free life. Through one-hour classroom presentations, the program provides fourth and fifth-graders with the tools and knowledge to make positive decisions regarding their health.

“Long-term tobacco and cigarette use in adults usually starts when they’re very young, even as young as 12 or 13 years old,” says Diva Wilson, a second-year student in the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and Tar Wars participant. “Targeting these students can prevent initiation or long-term use of these products.”

Tar Wars presentations are scheduled in more than 30 classrooms in a dozen area schools, primarily Buffalo Public Schools, during the fall and spring semesters. A complete list of schools is here:  

·         PS 6 Buffalo School of Technology

·         PS 17 Early Childhood Center

·         PS 19 Native American Magnet School

·         PS 30 Frank A. Sedita Academy

·         PS 37 Marva J. Daniel Futures Preparatory School

·         PS 39 Martin Luther King Multicultural Institute

·         PS 64 Frederick Law Olmsted

·         PS 66 North Park Academy

·         PS 67 Discovery School

·         PS 91 BUILD Academy

·         PS 99 Stanley M. Makowski Early Childhood Center

·         Immaculate Conception (East Aurora)


During the one-hour presentations, students will inhale through a straw after doing 15 seconds of jumping jacks to demonstrate the difficulties a smoker would have breathing after exercise. Candy wrappers are displayed alongside smokeless tobacco products to show students how similarly tobacco products and candy are advertised.

Other topics include the cost of using tobacco products, the results of advertising, reasons why people still smoke, and short-term and long-term effects of smoking, such as cancer. While the focus is on smoking, the presenters also inform children that e-cigarettes and vapes also contain nicotine and are addictive.

“We try to make everything interactive,” says Wilson. “We encourage medical students and presenters to engage the children actively in the presentations and to be as creative as they want.”

The Western New York Tar Wars program was initiated at UB in 1997 by Martin Mahoney, MD, PhD, who was then training as a medical resident in the UB Department of Family Medicine. A former chair of the Tar Wars program advisory board, Mahoney is now professor of oncology in the departments of Health Behavior and Medicine at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

The Western New York effort is having a significant impact: last year, alone, UB medical students presented Tar Wars to more than 1,200 elementary students.

The local program also is attracting national recognition: In 2014, Denise McGuigan, principal education specialist in the UB Department of Family Medicine, was one of two people in the U.S. to receive the Tar Wars Star Award, which honors individuals and organizations who have significantly contributed to the Tar Wars effort.

The Tar Wars committee cited McGuigan’s efforts to integrate students from other disciplines at UB, such as nursing, dental medicine and public health into the Tar Wars program. McGuigan has been coordinating UB’s Tar Wars presentations for more than 15 years.

Geared toward fourth- and fifth-graders—the approximate age at which children can understand the effects of tobacco and cigarette use—Tar Wars has reached more than 10 million children worldwide since its inception in 1988.

McGuigan says that anyone motivated to promote a tobacco-free lifestyle can participate in Tar Wars. Family medicine residents, medical students, school nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, students, dental hygienists, health education professionals, community leaders and even parents can volunteer.

“We welcome participation and are happy to train them to present the program,” she says. For more information on the program or on becoming a Tar Wars volunteer, contact McGuigan at dpalermo@buffalo.edu.



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