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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Making the Most Out of Making Your School Smoke-Free

Gerald Thomas, PhD

Reprinted from the "Schools" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5 (2), pp. 22-24

In September 2007, the BC government took an important step in reducing youth smoking rates by banning the use of tobacco on school grounds. Previous tobacco control legislation had only banned tobacco use inside the schools. The smoking ban on its own, however, may serve only as an annoyance that forces students (and staff) who smoke to go off school grounds to light up.

A comprehensive approach is needed

To achieve meaningful, long-term results, say researchers, schools need to take a comprehensive, or broad, approach to tackling smoking in the schoolyard and beyond.

Evidence shows that smoking bans are most effective when combined with other types of prevention, rules and stop-smoking initiatives.1 And all these initiatives need to be used consistently and sustainably across the whole community. To help a smoking ban do more than clear the air in one place and push the problem over to another, a larger strategy needs to be in place.

An integrated approach—known formally as a comprehensive tobacco control strategy—stands the greatest chance of impacting student choices and behaviours. It links people, policy and programs. It makes sure that a message of health is delivered in different ways, from different angles and from different people.

A good example of integration is the way the smoke-free school grounds policy works to support the aims of the BC Healthy Schools program. Healthy Schools is a well-established health promotion program that invites students to learn and use decision-making skills around their own health and well-being.2 Linking policies such as the school grounds smoking ban to the Healthy Schools initiative gives consistent messages. It also helps reinforce broader lessons about positive health choices among students.

Seven steps toward a smoke-free school

Developing and carrying out a comprehensive tobacco control strategy takes time, effort and a long-term commitment. Below are seven steps for creating a smoke-free school. These steps help make the process easier, because they are manageable and based on common sense.

1. Set up a tobacco control steering committee
School leaders can form a committee to create and monitor progress of the comprehensive tobacco control strategy. The first six months after start-up are the most crucial to the strategy’s long-term success. However, the committee will likely need to continue its leadership role well after the strategy takes effect to ensure the effort is ongoing.

2. Create capacity: encourage support and involvement of relevant school and community members
Enlisting full support of stakeholders (i.e., those who care about the issue) is best done by including them in both the development and execution of the strategy. The steering committee should actively reach out to relevant stakeholders, both in the school and the community.

At the school level, stakeholders may include:

  • administrators

  • teachers

  • other school staff (counsellors, nurses, clerical support, janitors, bus drivers, etc.)

  • students (including those who smoke)

  • parents

At the community level, key stakeholders may include:

  • tobacco reduction coordinators (within each health authority)

  • municipal bodies

  • local police services

  • neighbourhood associations

  • local businesses

  • youth services organizations

3. Gather information in order to design a tailored strategy
Each school is unique. Therefore, it is important to collect information on the local situation so that the tobacco-free strategy can be tailored to local needs and circumstances.

Some of the key pieces of information to collect are:

  • the percentage of students and staff who smoke

  • community perceptions and concerns regarding a tobacco-free school (pro and con)

  • anticipated concerns or problems in enforcing a smoking ban; for example, students gathering in locations near the school to smoke during school hours

  • profiles of what life is like on the school grounds and in surrounding areas (e.g., neighbourhoods, malls, parks, etc.)

  • examples of educational and promotional activities already in place that could support the implementation of a tobacco-free school strategy

  • a list of successes and problems of previous tobacco-reduction activities, both locally and further afield (if available)

4. Develop the strategy
Successful tobacco control strategies for schools involve a well-thought out mix of policies and programs. This provides students, staff, parents and other stakeholders with the information, skills and supports needed to address tobacco use. All relevant groups should be involved in coming up with specific interventions and procedures. The local situation, as identified in step 3 above, will determine the best overall strategy. The steering committee should provide leadership and support for the development process.

5. Develop clear and consistent messages
Once the tobacco control strategy has been developed, staff, students and parents must be made aware of its basic elements (rules and expectations). This can be done through school newsletters, posters, signs and other tools that clearly communicate these rules and expectations. Ideally, both general and stakeholder-specific information will be used in messaging campaigns (see table for examples).

6. Ensure measured, consistent and fair enforcement
Smoke-free school policies work best when the rules are well understood, consistently applied and the consequences of breaking them are seen by students as fair and reasonable. Consistent enforcement of the rules shows that school officials are serious about compliance and fair in their response to violations.

  • When designing consequences for breaking the rules, a school should:

  • use a positive approach (i.e., recognize successes and encourage connectedness and social and emotional development)

  • focus on the purpose of the rule (i.e., to promote healthy choices and reduce tobacco use)

  • change the consequences based on how many times the person has broken the rules (i.e., progressive consequences) and whether the person is a student, staff member or visitor

Heavy-handed consequences, such as suspension, should be used in special cases and only as a last resort.

7. Provide support for students and staff who want to quit smoking
Schools are encouraged to take advantage of existing cessation support resources in the community. One of these resources is BC’s QuitNow program.3 There are other local tobacco cessation programs offered by regional health authorities, such as the Nicotine Intervention Counselling (NIC) program in the Northern Health Authority. For more information, contact your local Tobacco Reduction Coordinator.4

8. Prepare for and respond to students who leave school grounds to smoke
One of the most difficult issues with having a tobacco-free school grounds policy is students leaving school property to smoke during the school day. This can create problems with student safety and public disorder in areas close to the school.

Since every environment is different, schools need to:

  • talk through the issue with students, staff and people in the areas surrounding school property

  • talk about potential safety and public order problems before they happen

  • be creative and flexible when dealing with students choosing to leave school grounds to smoke (e.g., bring students together with neighbours or local business owners to discuss the situation and possible solutions that serve everyone) 


Table 1: Examples of tailored messages in a comprehensive tobacco control strategy

General messages about the Act and strategy

  • date when Tobacco Control Act measures took effect

  • restrictions set out in the Act

  • principles of the tobacco control strategy

  • rationale for the strategy

  • consequences for violating the provisions of the Act

  • people responsible for enforcing the Act

  • complaint mechanisms for reporting violations of the Act

Messages to students should ...

  • help all students understand that the strategy stems from a concern for their health and well-being

  • make sure that students are aware of the consequences of violating the Act

  • encourage student participation in implementing the strategy, including students who smoke

  • convince students that school officials are serious about enforcement

  • encourage students who smoke to take advantage of in-school and/or community support available to help them quit

  • foster a spirit of understanding among non-smokers for their peers who smoke

Messages to school staff should ...

  • help staff assume their roles as positive models for students and fully comply with the rules of the Act

  • endorse the strategy’s importance as part of the educational mission of the school

  • encourage staff to take advantage of the support available to quit smoking, thereby setting a good example for students

Messages to parents should help them ...

  • support school management in implementing the strategy

  • support their child’s participation in anti-tobacco activities

  • support their child’s efforts to quit smoking

  • take advantage of supports available in the community to help them stop smoking, thereby setting a good example for their child

  • emphasize the importance of a tobacco-free lifestyle

  • make sure their children are aware of the consequences of violating the Act and the school’s rules by smoking on school grounds

About the author
Gerald is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Communication and Resource Unit, a satellite office of the Centre for Addictions Research of BC, which is based at the University of Victoria
  1. Burns, D. (2000). Reducing tobacco use: What works in the population? Journal of Dentistry Education, 66(9):1051-1060.

  2. For more information on Healthy Schools, visit and

  3. QuitNow is a program of the BC Lung Association. See

  4. Ministry of Health Services’ Tobacco Reduction Coordinator List:

  5. Myers, M., MacPherson, L., Jones, Let al. (2007). Measuring adolescent smoking cessation strategies: Instrument development and initial validation. Nicotine and Tobacco Research, 9(11):1131-1138.


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