TORONTO - Former "Degrassi" star Rebecca Haines-Saah was used to being in front of the cameras, but now she's taking a turn behind them in a way — trying to figure out why some young adults smoke and how researchers can help them to butt out for good.
Haines-Saah, who played Kathleen Mead on TV's "Degrassi Junior High" and "Degrassi High" from 1987 to 1991, is now a public health researcher at the University of British Columbia, and these days the former smoker is focusing her efforts on tobacco control.
With a $125,000 grant from the Canadian Cancer Society, she is about to begin recruiting 20-something smokers who want to quit for a study using digital cameras and social media. The upshot of the project is to engage them in smoking cessation and "to foster an online community where participants will support each other during the quit process."
The 60 participants will be asked to take photos that reflect "my smoke-free life, what does a smoke-free life look like?" Haines-Saah, 39, said from Vancouver.
"So over three months, they will take photos, upload to social media where they can interact with other people in the project and get support, engage with others around the issues of smoking and quitting."
Their photos, with taglines explaining the context, will be posted on Facebook and Flickr.
"We want to see which (of the platforms) might engage young adults in different ways," she said. "Both allow users to comment, to create private groups to have discussions, to rank photos, but obviously they do that in different ways."
New figures released last week by Statistics Canada show overall tobacco use has fallen dramatically, with 17 per cent of Canadians over age 15 still lighting up, compared with 25 per cent in 1999.
The rate for teenagers aged 15 to 17, a key group for gauging the success of anti-smoking initiatives, plunged by more than half, to 12 per cent from 28 per cent in 1999.
But those in their early 20s represent a tougher age group to crack, said Haines-Saah. While rates have steadily declined from more than 30 per cent in 2002, the report showed that about 22 per cent of 20- to 24-year-olds still reported smoking in 2010.
"This demographic has the highest rates of smoking of all age groups and there's really a lack of resources for young adults," she said. "We do really well in targeting kids in elementary school and high school students, but there's some evidence that those interventions don't have a long-term effect once they move into young adulthood.
"So this is a group that's really underserved and a group that really needs creative interventions."
Haines-Saah, along with colleagues at UBC's Okanagan campus, conducted an earlier pilot project with six males and six females in their 20s, giving them disposable cameras to produce images that would document their individual experiences around smoking and what quitting would mean to them.
"And the themes in the photos were really striking, in that they were really linked to their everyday social context of life here in Vancouver, which is the culture of outdoor living, which for them facilitates smoking because you can only smoke outside," she said. "But (the environment) was also a strong motivator for quitting because we have this idea of the healthy lifestyle in B.C. in terms of skiing and hiking and mountain biking.
"And that was something people took a lot of pictures of ... being outdoors was something to motivate them to quit."
One of the participants, UBC student Ida Lotfi of Halifax, said taking the photos made her more conscious of why she smoked and where.
"I took the approach of spots where I would smoke. I felt that when I was trying to quit I would notice more about spots that I would prefer to smoke, like if I saw a bench I liked and if it was a really pretty area.
"I thought if I had a pack, it would be nice to sit and smoke here, enjoy the view. I thought other smokers could recognize where you can smoke because it's so restricted nowadays, so if you find a little nook or cranny, you kind of hold onto it."
Haines-Saah said she noticed a split along gender lines in the group, with the females talking about smoking making them ugly and concerns about weight and physical activity.
"What was interesting to me was that the young men were not shy about being included in the photos," she said. "Young men were less afraid to show themselves smoking and to talk about the image of the so-called cool guy smoker and how that is a barrier to them quitting and how they enjoy that with friends.
"Whereas women were notably absent and didn't want to appear in the photos, per se. And I think that also speaks to some of the gender and stigma that we have around smoking. In this day and age for some people, it can become a closeted activity, right? So it's difficult to get support."
Lotfi said when the group got together with Haines-Saah to discuss their photos and explain their context, "it was kind of comforting."
"To hear another person who's trying to quit and what that photo means to them, you can either relate or it can open your mind to a whole different perspective of things. It was interesting to hear other people on the same page ... Sometimes you think, 'I'm going through this on my own and I'm the only one who feels this way about this or is struggling with this.'"
She said smoking-cessation interventions, such as pictures on cigarette packages of diseased organs from years of puffing away on cigarettes or TV ads of someone needing oxygen to breathe, don't really work with 20-somethings.
"It's like trying to gross us out to make us quit," said Lotfi, 22, who has been smoking off and on since about 17. "In the place that I am now ... if something was targeted to my age group, it would definitely have to be more meaningful to experiences in my life."
Cameron Norman, an assistant professor of health promotion at the University of Toronto, agreed that coming up with appropriate smoking-cessation messages for this demographic of smokers is challenging.
"Young people, most of the threats they're getting are not proximal to them, they're down the road," he said of the risk of lung cancer and other health effects.
"The other thing is that young people may also not necessarily see the issue in its entirety. And one of the things that the photography does is it allows them to look at how it relates to their life in a way that they might not be able to think about in the moment if you ask them."
The UBC project is a great idea because it goes where young people are — on social media sites — and it's more participatory, he said.
"You can actually engage in dialogue that you couldn't before," Norman said. "So when you go on Facebook, you're seeing what your peers are saying about the problem and the potential solutions, not just what somebody sitting in a public health unit or an egghead researcher like myself (is saying)."
"We can actually enlist the public, that is young people, as our allies in supporting smoking cessation."
Haines-Saah said there will be cash incentives for participants to upload their photos for the study's duration and a cash prize yet to be decided for the best photo and caption.
"A lot of programs give advice about how to stop smoking or have a healthier lifestyle, but this is really a strategy to get people to step back and critically reflect on what they're doing and why," she said.
"Our goal is for them to reflect and for us to understand what their needs are from their unique point of view."