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Anti-Substance Abuse Program Works ASAP!


Seeing is believing! ASAP -- an anti-drug program in which middle-school students see the effects of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs on real body organs -- is opening students' eyes to, and opening up discussions about, the real dangers substance abuse poses for the human body. Thursday, November 19, is the American Cancer Society's 22nd Great American Smokeout!


"Usually when people come to tell us about drug abuse, it is the same. Not even pictures. And so we thought this was going to be the same old, same old. But man, was I wrong! The minute I saw those jars and plates I knew this was going to be different!"


"You taught me a lot about the human organs and the effects of drugs. Seeing the disgusting organs will make me think twice about smoking. Also, it was more fun having 25-year-old students with life in them, instead of having old doctors. The day was lots of fun!"

Those comments were made by two sixth-grade students at Ellen Glasgow Middle School in Alexandria, Virginia. The students had just participated in the Adolescent Substance Abuse Prevention, ASAP, an anti-substance abuse program used nationwide in grades 5 to 7. ASAP's goal is to educate students about the dangers of drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and cigarette smoking.

But ASAP differs from most abuse prevention programs in big ways!

The program, developed by medical students at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, aims to prevent drug use by focusing on the relationship among organ physiology, healthy body systems, and drug use. The distinctive feature of the ASAP program is an interactive session in which students compare and contrast normal and diseased organ specimens in small group discussions under the leadership of medical students.


The kids comprehend the short-term and long-term effects of drug use by seeing how cirrhosis, cancer, and other pathological conditions affect real human organs such as the liver, lungs, and brain.

After the organ demonstration, students are engaged in developing drug-resistance skills in role-play activities focusing on peer pressure and self-esteem.

"The idea behind the program isn't totally original," says Charles Samenow, a Pritzker medical student and co-project director of ASAP with Eric Berkson, another Pritzker student. "Organs had been used in other programs to educate kids. But what is different is that we use the organs as a tool for learning in a rational, small-group discussion -- we don't use the organs as a scare tactic."

Having medical students teach the ASAP material also defines the program as unique. "The med students teaching in the program are experts portraying important scientific material about substance abuse in a fun, interesting, manner," explains Samenow. "Because the med students are relatively young, students can relate to them as role models. They are convincing when they talk about resisting peer pressure."



The ASAP program is built around three 45-50 minute sessions, each about one week apart.

  • The initial class focuses on how internal organs function normally and the bad effects of commonly abused substances. Posters and other visual means are used to drive home how substance abuse can damage the major organs in the human body.
  • In the second session, medical students bring actual organs into the classroom. Healthy and pathological organ specimens are used to demonstrate graphically the damage caused by drug use and the importance of abstinence in nurturing a healthy body.
  • The third session is a role-playing exercise that develops and reinforces strategies to help adolescents resist social pressures to abuse drugs.



The carefully scripted activities of the ASAP program are contained in a carefully constructed 106-page guide that medical students follow. The introduction to the second session -- "The Effects of Drugs on the Body - 'Gross!' Anatomy" -- explains to the medical students in charge the best approach to the session in which students will actually view human organs:

"Begin this session by emphasizing the following points:

  • We are bringing these organs into the classroom with the assumption that the class is mature enough to handle them. This is a very special privilege. We expect the students to act in a mature manner.
  • Explain that the organs are from human beings who have been kind enough to, before their death, donate their organs for the students to learn from. We expect respect for both the person and the organ.
  • The organs do not smell. (They are in water).
  • Only medical students may touch the organs. Students may not touch organs! No fingers, pencil tips, gloves, etc. ...Remind students that these organs are very fragile."

"When the organs are presented, the students may react inappropriately," the session guide continues. "Remind them about maturity and, perhaps, give them three seconds to 'shake' their anxiety out of their systems. Use humor. Be creative."



"The sincerity of the medical students came across clearly to our students," says Jim Benson, a sixth-grade science teacher at the University of Chicago Lab School, "and the lessons were invaluable as the kids listen better to the medical students than to us."

Benson continues, "An assessment we did with seventh-graders who had undergone the Adolescent Substance Abuse Prevention program in sixth grade showed substance abuse down as compared with other seventh graders. What impressed kids the most were the 'yucky organs' that they had viewed and discussed."

Lisa Rocca, a health teacher at Deer Path Junior High School in Lake Forest, Illinois, says, "By far, the use of human organs made the lesson more real to students. They could visualize what drugs will do to them and, after the sessions, they said they were less likely to use drugs."



"It's almost impossible to measure our effectiveness because we're not the only source of drug information for kids," says Charles Samenow.

"But we have done preliminary studies that show kids get more information from our program," adds Samenow. "We constantly follow-up by talking with school students and administrators, and they consistently rate the ASAP program as exceptional."

The ASAP program folks receive their evaluations in the form of direct feedback as well as evaluation forms that call for rating the program, says Samenow, adding, students often write thank you notes to express how much they have learned from the ASAP program.



Funded primarily by a grant from Irving B. Harris and the Harris Foundation, ASAP was recently adopted by the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) as the national model drug abuse prevention program for medical schools across the country. The AMSA is currently working with more than 15 medical schools from around the nation to establish ASAP programs.

To obtain more information on the Adolescent Substance Abuse Prevention program, contact the program at:

The Adolescent Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP) Program
c/o Department of Psychiatry
University of Chicago Hospitals
5841 South Maryland Avenue MC3077
Chicago, IL 60637
email: [email protected]
National Voice Mail: (703) 620-6600, ext. 463



Article by Sharon Cromwell
Education World®
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