A Smoke free Generation

Jamie Matthews explains how social media is being used to stop young people in Wales smoking.

The National Assembly for Wales elections are fast approaching and the parties in Wales are writing their manifestos – tackling public health challenges in Wales will feature prominently.

Reducing smoking rates in Wales, particularly among young people, will be a top priority for the next Welsh Government and one where there are major health gains.

The figures speak for themselves on why this is the number one health problem in Wales: It is estimated that a classroom of children takes up smoking every day in Wales. One in two children who try smoking become addicted smokers – these figures are staggering. Smoking is an addiction of childhood.

Two years ago ASH Wales successfully received funding from the Big Lottery fund, who agreed to support a three-year project, creating a young person’s stop-smoking service for Wales: The Filter project. The project is now entering its third year and, over the past two years, The Filter’s achievements have been impressive. The most inspiring among them being the way the ASH Wales youth development team working on the project reach young people in disadvantaged communities across Wales.

The team has made contact with an estimated 30,000 young people all over Wales. They have built up links with them through youth networks, social media, and friendships, and have recruited willing volunteers to promote the project’s work across Wales.

We hear a lot about “youth-led” projects that are often everything but that. Our work is led by inspiring young people with energy and creativity that should be bottled and sold.

The strength of the project is the freedom the team have to be creative and trial new ideas to engage young people. Much of the work of The Filter is now being used as best-practice in youth work and smoking cessation for 11-25 year olds. In addition, the team train up volunteer youth workers and supervise placements and training schemes.

The Filter has pioneered the use of social media for health promotion. Many third sector organisations and youth services in Wales have social media ‘tacked on’ to their core work. Often you’ll hear “We must do something on Facebook as well” when a campaign is developed. The difference is that campaigns are developed for social media because the team recognise how essential these platforms are when it comes to reaching young people.

This year is the second that Wales has had its own Stoptober campaign. This is a really effective campaign which encourages adults to quit smoking for a month. Snapchat is very popular among young people (according to statistics from May, its users are sending around 700 million photos and videos every day), so this makes it an ideal way to promote the Stoptober message in a relevant way, sharing tips and providing support.

The app enables users to create photos and videos and share them with friends for a limited time before they disappear. Its immediacy has a strong appeal for users and it has become a go-to platform for informal communication with friends.

The Filter Snapchat campaign was launched at the beginning of October with the Forsythia youth project on The Gurnos estate in Merthyr Tydfil. The group spray painted a Snapchat logo mural on the side of a soon-to-be-demolished building.

We have also developed the use of Twitter from just sharing preventative messages, to pro-actively contacting young people through the network to provide stop-smoking support and advice. A key part of our social media strategy from the start has also been to share young people’s own voices and opinions, by re-tweeting their tweets and inviting young people to blog, for example.

There is also much more to do. Smoking prevalence amongst young people in Wales is still far too high – 15% of 15 year old girls and 9% of 15 year old boys are smoking regularly.

The Big Lottery funding for The Filter has 12 months left. After this the project could come to an end. The ASH Wales youth team are full of energy and ideas and are leading the way with a fast-moving and innovative stop-smoking service for young people in Wales. They have built up vital links within communities with youth clubs, colleges, pupil referral units and many other youth settings.

Smoking prevalence in Wales in 2014 is 21%, with the highest rates in our disadvantaged communities. This is some way off the Welsh Government’s target of 16% by 2020. We will not reach this target, or indeed the more ambitious target of a smoke free generation in Wales, unless politicians and policy-makers tackle the issue urgently. 

Jamie Matthews is Head of Communications & Public Affairs for ASH Wales

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