Teaching Students to Analyze Health Influences

This 20-minute anti-smoking documentary is the perfect tool for teaching students to analyze the various factors influencing their health. 


As a seventh-grade student in the late 1990s, I saw a plethora of anti-smoking advertisements on television. Quite a few featured a Massachusetts woman named Pam Laffin, who lived with emphysema and had to receive a lung transplant because of her cigarette-smoking habit. Laffin quickly became the face of the anti-smoking movement in Massachusetts, taking her message to local schools to warn students about the dangers of tobacco. She was also featured on the MTV show “True Life” in an episode titled, “I Can’t Breathe.”

I tend not to use many videos in my health class, but “I Can’t Breathe” is worth showing. The 20-minute video is available to watch on Vimeo and easily captivates students’ attention from start to finish.

In the 2001 (but still relevant!) documentary, Laffin chronicles her struggle with tobacco addiction, beginning with her first cigarette at age ten, and does not shy away from sharing the grim details of addiction’s devastating effects on her life.

“I Can’t Breathe” is packed with information, but when I show it to my students, I choose to focus on the influences that led Laffin to pick up that first cigarette. Students complete a video-viewing protocol called, “Record, Elaborate, Extend,” initially developed by Michael Yell, which asks them to take brief, focused notes (record), develop sentences and complete thoughts based on those notes (elaborate), and then answer a set of discussion questions (extend).

Standard 2 of the NHES states, “Students will analyze the influence of family, peers, culture, media, technology, and other factors on health behaviors” (CDC). “I Can’t Breathe” is a perfect tool for teaching kids how to analyze influences on their health. The documentary offers more than one great example of the concept, covering what influenced Laffin to start smoking, as well as how her habit influenced her life and the life of her family.

Here are some sample questions to discuss with students, with the NHES performance indicator in parentheses:

  • Describe how the movie “Grease” influenced a young Pam Laffin to start smoking. (2.8.2)
  • What aspects of Pam’s family life helped influence her to start smoking? (2.8.1)
  • Laffin had previously made assumptions about how cigarettes would impact her popularity. How did these assumptions influence her to start smoking? (2.8.7)
  • Analyze the impact of anti-smoking messages, such as this documentary, on teenage health. Do you think these messages are effective in preventing teen smoking? Explain why or why not. (2.8.5)
  • Explain how schools can positively influence students to stay away from tobacco products. (2.8.10)

Students can also create their own discussion questions to ask their classmates. By encouraging them to develop their own questions, students take ownership for their learning and are exposed to the varying viewpoints of their classmates. This strategy can also help teachers learn which information is most relevant and important to students.

NOTE: It’s advised that teachers preview the documentary before showing in class. There are some brief surgery scenes, plus a visual of a healthy lung compared with a lung that was damaged by smoking.