Smoking Education for Teens in the UAE

439 teens participate in student-led workshops on smoking and nutrition

NYU Abu Dhabi Class of 2014 graduates Leena Asfour and Zachary Stanley, now medical students in the US, are the lead authors of a published academic article pointing toward a way to change risky health behaviors among teenagers. The report summarizes the findings of the joint senior-year Capstone project the pair did as pre-med students at NYUAD.

The paper, in July’s edition of the Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal, explains that the two got access to Grade 9 classes at five English-language Abu Dhabi secondary schools. Most of the 439 students involved in the research were 14-year-olds of Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) origin.

Stanley and Asfour organized “peer-led” informational workshops, one series on smoking and another on nutrition and physical activity. (Strictly speaking the sessions were near-peer led; Asfour and Stanley designed and conducted the workshops.) Surveys before and after the 18 sessions revealed improved awareness and attitudes about health-related behavior. On smoking, the sessions led the students to healthier intentions, although on fitness and nutrition the change was smaller. Across the board, the young participants said they liked this approach to learning.

Asfour and Stanley don’t know why the smoking workshops had more impact than the nutrition ones. Stanley noted that many MENA adolescents use tobacco, and receive little information about harmful effects, “especially traditional regional forms like dokha and shisha.” Hearing this from a young person helped to “change some of those perceptions”, he said.

Asfour added that “information about what happens with smoking is more shocking to people … it seemed harder for them to imagine being fat than to imagine the results of smoking."

The research provides evidence to support the national adoption of a peer-to-peer health education model as an intervention for tobacco use but not for nutrition and physical activity choices, they concluded.

The study was born during a semester in New York, when Asfour and Stanley joined Peer Health Exchange, a program in which university undergraduates lead workshops for high school students. During a discussion, Asfour recalled, “Zach looked at me and said ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ and I said ‘Yes’.”

“In Abu Dhabi there isn’t much health education in high schools,” Asfour said. “We met with Scott Sherman and Michael Weitzman, principal investigators at the NYUAD Public Health Research Center, whose names are also on the paper, and they were fully supportive.”

Asfour, now studying medicine at NYU New York, plans to specialize in otolaryngology. Stanley is at the University of Oklahoma, and aspires to obstetrics and gynecology, and perhaps academic medicine. Both expect to be residents in 2018.