Take as Directed

Keeping in touch with teens


At a family get-together last year, a 13-year-old cousin of mine conspicuously excused himself from the festivities “to get some air.” By his third disappearance my curiosity was piqued, and as no one else was taking notice, I decided to follow him.

I waited five minutes and ducked out the side door. Creeping along the wall–in true Miami Vice fashion–I rounded the corner just in time to catch sight of him throwing a cigarette butt into the snow. “Are you smoking?” I demanded, and immediately launched into a sermon on the perils of tobacco, interspersed with threats of a typical parental kind. He was only 13 after all.

Recent media coverage surrounding Bev Harris, the Vancouver pharmacist who developed a lipstick-shaped nicotine stick to help teens quit smoking, reminded me of that incident with my cousin. Only this pharmacist was reaching out to teens in a manner much more effective than my berating tone that day proved to be. (According to his mother, my cousin is still smoking.)

Harris teamed up with staff at Gleneagle Secondary School in Coquitlam, BC, in an effort to address an increasingly growing problem among teens in the area–especially young women. “It’s really sad to see 15- and 16-year-old girls heavily addicted to nicotine already,” says Harris, adding that she has had many a parent come into her pharmacy desperate to get their teens to quit smoking.

When Harris couldn’t convince manufacturers to donate smoking cessation products to the program, she took matters into her own hands– literally–and concocted a wax-based nicotine stick. (It was based on a concept a friend had discovered at a U.S. compounding course for pharmacists.) The teens took to the stick–which is rubbed on the insides of the wrists to curb cravings–but Health Canada quickly nixed the idea because the product hadn’t been tested for side effects. As a result, the College of Pharmacists of BC advised Harris not to distribute the stick without a prescription.

While the product failed to fulfil its purpose, Harris didn’t. As a pharmacist, she recognized the important role she could play in helping teens deal with a serious issue. “Teens aren’t going to listen to the gloom and doom of lung cancer forecasts,” she says. Instead, Harris uses her know-how to emphasize the negatives of cigarette smoke such as bad skin, smelly breath and yellow fingers. “That’s the kind of thing teens care about.”

Lyall Meyers of Meyers Drugs in Winnipeg is another pharmacist who targets teens in a manner they can relate to–only this time the vices are illegal performance-enhancing drugs, such as steroids. Meyers, who once owned a health gym, says he understands the pressures kids face when it comes to their bodies. “Teenage boys want to impress the girls. They want to be bigger and play football,” he says.

When Meyers can’t convince teens to avoid the drugs entirely, he gives out clean needles and emphasizes the importance of not sharing them. While this tactic gets him a lot of grief from parents, he says the alternative is much worse. “I get them the needles and try to talk to them,” he says. “They know AIDS is scary but they think they can walk on water.”

When time permits, Meyers hopes to organize a speaker series through the local schools so he can educate a greater number of teens on the dangers of sports supplements. In the meantime, he says he tries to be accessible and appeal to what teens deem “important” issues. “They come up and ask questions [about steroids], and I tell them about the side effects like pimples and the fact it can affect their libidos.”

Other pharmacists who have established successful relationships with teens tell me they always try to be empathetic, not condescending–informative, not preaching.

I take this advice to heart. At the next family get-together I plan to skip the spy stunt and take the time to really talk to my cousin about the drawbacks of smoking. Then I’ll send him to his pharmacist.