Daniel Rodriguez

In one suburban Philadelphia high school where tobacco is a dangerous temptation luring teens into a risky addiction and a perilous future, Dr. Daniel Rodriguez is using the school as a proving ground where a critical transformation is at work. Kids in jeopardy are becoming healthy adolescents.

Rodriguez, a behavioral scientist funded by the Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation (CRPF) at the University of Pennsylvania, is on a quest that began years ago on the streets of his hometown. When he was just a teenager himself, the Washington, D.C., native would walk miles from home with his friends into the heart of Georgetown. The weekend jaunts turned into an important outlet of physical activity for Rodriguez and sparked a lifelong interest that became the source of his professional ambitions.

He wanted to understand the power of physical activity. Can it change our attitudes and our lives? Can the simple act of exercise keep children and adolescents safe from harmful substances? Rodriguez tested his theory this past spring when he surveyed 400 10th graders in one school district outside Philadelphia. The students were questioned in depth about their smoking habits and history of physical activity, with some surprising results.

“The students reported involvement with 64 different types of physical activity, from kickball to rollerblading,” Rodriguez says. “There was an amazing variety. But the initial findings seem to indicate physical activity alone isn’t enough of a deterrent to smoking, and some activities, such as skateboarding, may even pose a risk.

“Kids who engage in certain activities, especially extreme activities like skateboarding, appear more likely to smoke,” Rodriguez says. Why? While individual activities may be filled with physical exertion, they are often unsupervised.

“It’s simply kids hanging out with friends,” he says, “and that can mean peer pressure and unhealthy behaviors, including smoking.

“Other activities involving adult supervision, such as ballet or karate, may actually prevent smoking,” Rodriguez says. The bottom line? Children need adult supervision.

“When coaches, parents and teachers set rules and monitor behavior, teenagers smoke less often. And the activity doesn’t even have to be physical.

“Our results also indicate that kids are more likely to smoke if they see their parents smoking inside their homes,” Rodriguez adds. “That isn’t news to those of us who are parents,” he says, “but it has been eye-opening to realize how much influence parents have on their children’s behavior.”

Despite the litany of good and bad influences, Mom and Dad continue to be their children’s role models. “More than ever,” Rodriguez cautions, “adults need to step up, get involved and take responsibility for helping children grow into caring, healthy intelligent grownups.” Now Rodriguez is hoping to expand his research and develop a nationwide pilot program, based on the data produced through his CRPF grant. “It has been a tremendous experience,” Rodriguez says, “and I’m optimistic that what we are learning will make a real difference in the lives of children.”