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It’s time to catch your breath. Actually, that would be CATCH My Breath, a UTHealth School of Public Health program on the frontline of the battle to reduce or eliminate the use of e-cigarette products in schools.

Steven H. Kelder, PhD, is a Co-Founding member of CATCH (Coordinated Approach To Child Health) Global Foundation. The Austin-based nonprofit distributes youth health programs, which were developed by researchers at UTHealth, to underserved schools.

As a professor at UTHealth School of Public Health in Austin, Kelder developed CATCH My Breath to provide prevention information to schools, parents, and health professionals to help students make an informed decision not to use e-cigarettes.

“I have a personal interest in this topic,” says Kelder. “I know many parents of addicted teens who are very angry that their kids and others can get these products just about everywhere, even in schools.”

Until 2019, state law prohibited the sale of tobacco products and e-cigarettes to anyone under the age of 18. “But you have 18-year-olds running small businesses selling e-cigarettes out of their backpacks on school campuses, even in the bathrooms,” Kelder explains.

Kelder conveyed that message in testimony to the Texas Legislature, which passed a bill banning the sale of tobacco products and e-cigarettes to anyone under the age of 21. Governor Greg Abbott signed the bill into law in June 2019. Nicotine is an addictive drug that affects the brains of adolescents and adults differently. “This difference makes young people more susceptible to nicotine addiction,” Kelder points out.

E-cigarette use among teenagers is at epidemic levels, up almost 300% from 2016 to 2019.

E-cigarettes deliver significantly more nicotine than regular cigarettes and send nicotine to the brain faster. “People get used to the higher nicotine and the faster jolt, and then they eventually become addicted,” Kelder says.

In 2015, Kelder used funds from the Beth Toby Grossman Distinguished Professorship in Spiritualty and Healing to develop CATCH My Breath because no programs like it existed. With additional funding from Austin’s St. David’s Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Kelder tested the online program in 12 Austin schools. The result: a 50% reduction in e-cigarette use among the schools’ students compared to a control group.

CATCH My Breath has expanded through CATCH Global Foundation to 2,700 schools covering about 1.2 million students in all 50 states at no charge to the schools, thanks to underwriting by CVS Health Foundation. “We have separate programs designed for students in grades five to 12,” Kelder notes. “We were in the right place at the right time with the right program.”

 The program’s different versions address the evolving levels of knowledge and understanding of students, including the fact that most of them are going through puberty. Lessons focus on ways to resist peer pressure instead of just teaching about risk.

“We’re finding a very different profile of kids using e-cigarettes,” Kelder says. “They’re the popular kids, the athletic kids, the college-bound kids. These are influential social role models, so we want to teach kids how to say no without getting ostracized.”

CVS Health Foundation is working with Discovery Education to put CATCH My Breath on its digital platform used by 75% of schools in the United States. “I don’t think it’s unrealistic that we’ll be reaching two million kids by the end of 2020 with Discovery Education,” Kelder says.

Schools and teachers are not the only ones to discover the program. Canada and 14 other countries also use the program developed at UTHealth.

And that, in itself, is breathtaking.

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