Enrolling an influential student to convey an anti-smoking message to schoolmates is a valuable way of getting youngsters to say no to cigarettes, a British study suggests.
The experiment was launched by researchers in the face of evidence that traditional posters, ads and comic strips telling young people about the hazards of smoking are nowhere near as effective as peer pressure for making cigarettes unfashionable.
The test covered 59 schools in western England and Wales, with 11,000 students aged 12 to 13.
Twenty-nine of the schools were asked to carry out their normal anti-smoking education, thus providing a comparison, or control, for 30 other schools where researchers carried out the peer-pressure project, known as ASSIST.
The programme unfolded in several phases.
First, the students were asked to nominate influential schoolmates in their year group, and these individuals were invited to a recruitment meeting where the researchers explained the purpose of being a "peer supporter."
After gaining their parent's consent, the peer supporters took part in a two-day training event held outside of school, where they learned about the risks of smoking and the economic benefits of stopping.
They also developed skills in communication, conflict negotiation and resolution and understanding self-esteem.
The training was beefed up in four school-based sessions.
Over the following 10 weeks, the "peer supporters" were asked to have conversations with others in their year group about the benefits of not smoking.
In schools were the ASSIST programme was tried, students were 25 percent less likely to take up regular smoking immediately after the intervention as compared to the control group.
The success rate gradually reduced over time, though. After two years, the reduction was 15 percent.
The study, which appears on Saturday in the British journal The Lancet, is headed by Rona Campbell of the University of Bristol, western England, and Laurence Moore, of Cardiff University in Wales.
They say the ASSIST programme was popular among pupils and staff in the schools where it was tried, and argue the results clamour for a shift in thinking when it comes to tackling smoking.
Anti-smoking campaigns are target overwhelmingly at cessation, rather than prevention, and are focussed chiefly at adults rather than youngsters.
Worldwide, 9.5 percent of students aged between 13-15 smoke cigarettes, and the highest rate -- 19.1 percent -- is in European countries, according to a 2006 study.
The same paper estimated that deaths from smoking worldwide would probably exceed 10 million by 2020.