Mario Endara sat with his son, Juan, in the dining room of his Monrovia home one night after supper, trying his best to get the 12-year-old boy to try a cigarette.
"Come on, go ahead and try it. It's good. You'll like it," said Endara, 37, waving a cigarette in front of his son.
Actually, Endara quit smoking three years ago and the last thing he wants his son to do is take up the habit that had him in its grip for 17 years. So he was eager to help Juan with a homework assignment to practice how to politely but firmly say no to anyone pressuring him to smoke.
"It was kind of funny," Endara said of the role-playing exercise, which is part of a a smoking-prevention program called Feeling Fine. It was offered recently to seventh-graders at Clifton Middle School in Monrovia.
'Hard for Me'
"It was hard for me to do but I had to," said Endara. "My wife and I talk to him and do what we can do at home," Endara added, "but any extra help in the school is good."
A few weeks earlier, in nearby El Monte, a group of children and parents at Jenny Tucker Baker School listened intently as Raymond Hernandez, speaking in Spanish, told the story of an alcoholic who often spent a month's paycheck in a bar in one night, ran from responsibility and ruined the lives of his family members.
As part of a Self-Management and Resistance Training (SMART) program run by the same organization that sponsors Feeling Fine, he volunteered to share his experiences.
"I don't preach to them," said Hernandez, now a recovering alcoholic. "I give them my own story. I tell them, 'You don't have to go this way. You have a choice and can live a different kind of life, one for the better.' "
90% Are Latino
The 20 parents and 30 children at Baker, where 90% of the fourth- through eighth-graders are Latino, were taking part in a far-ranging program aimed at helping young people develop healthy life styles and keep from getting involved in drugs.
Feeling Fine and Project SMART are two of a number of substance-abuse-prevention programs conducted in Southern California schools by the Health Behavior Research Institute, an affiliate of USC's School of Pharmacy.
"Before, most programs dealt with enforcement or treatment," said Steven Senor, director of communications for the Pasadena-based institute. "There was very little to prevent people from taking drugs or teach kids the skills to say no and develop other assertive skills."
The programs are geared to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, the age level at which peer pressure to use drugs often begins to mount, researchers say.
A study conducted over the past five years found that by the time they reach seventh grade, 48% of the youngsters in Southern California have smoked cigarettes, 60% have drunk alcohol and 12% have tried marijuana, said institute researcher Unto Pallonen. By the 10th grade, 55% have used alcohol and 33% have experimented with marijuana.
Pallonen, who specializes in smoking-behavior research, said the Health Behavior Research Institute programs focus on keeping young people from experimenting with the "gateway drugs," alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana.
"Alcohol is the first step," Pallonen said. "Then it's smoking (cigarettes) and then marijuana. And from marijuana they move up to harder drugs. If you smoke, the likelihood to drink is very high. And if you smoke and drink, the chances are high that you will try harder drugs."
C. Anderson Johnson, director of the institute, said his group is conducting 17 projects aimed at preventing smoking, alcohol abuse, drug abuse and poor dietary habits and sedentary life styles. The programs include the Feeling Fine series offered at the Monrovia school, Project SMART, the Tobacco and Alcohol Prevention Project (TAPP), Project PASS UP, which involves parents in helping prevent substance abuse, and Project Advance, which assesses the extent to which smoking and alcohol are used by young people to cope with stress.
"A great deal of our research focuses on children and adolescents--we are prevention-oriented," he said. "People will live a better life if good habits and life styles are developed early."
Johnson said his group receives about $3.5 million in grants each year from organizations such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Cancer Institute.
Teach How to Say No
Although many of the group's programs emphasize proper diet and exercise, Feeling Fine and Project SMART attempt to teach teen-agers how to say no in socially acceptable ways to pressure to use the gateway drugs, and to get parents involved in the education process, Johnson said.
The Health Behavior Research Institute's long-range goal is to get young people to establish good habits at an early age, in the hopes of eventually reducing the incidence of cancer and heart disease nationwide.