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Article | Informing outdoor smokefree policy: Methods for measuring the proportion of people smoking in outdoor public areas


Introduction:  To advance the design and implementation of outdoor smokefree area policies, we aimed to develop simple, low-cost methods for measuring smoking in a variety of public places.

Methods: Two methods were developed and were used by solo observers during March 2011–February 2012 to measure the proportion of people smoking at a variety of sites.

Results: Both methods performed well (n=5553 people observed); the first at 58 sites in the UK and New Zealand (n=3191 observed); the second at 33 sites in New Zealand (n=2362 observed), with significant differences found between the smoking at types of sites and between countries. For the two countries combined, the proportions of people smoking (amongst those over 12 years) in children’s play areas was significantly lower compared to all the other sites combined (risk ratio=0.39; 95%CI: 0.20 to 0.76; p=0.002).

Conclusions: Solo observers can establish the proportion of people smoking in a range of outdoor sites. Such methods can inform outdoor smokefree area policymaking by providing baseline and post-policy data to enable location targeting and policy evaluation.

Citation: Thomson, G., Russell, M., Jenkin, G., Patel, V., Wilson, N. (2013). Informing outdoor smokefree policy: Methods for measuring the proportion of people smoking in outdoor public areas. Health & Place, 20, 19-24.

Media Release

Informing outdoor smokefree policy: Methods for measuring the proportion of people smoking in outdoor public areas | Wednesday 23 January 2013

Smokefree playground policies can make a difference.

British and New Zealand playgrounds have a significantly smaller proportion of people smoking than other types of public outdoor areas according to latest research from the University of Otago, Wellington.

New Zealand playgrounds and streets also have less smoking than in Britain, but outdoor transport waiting areas have more.

The University of Otago researchers have been developing and testing simple methods that can be used by anyone for determining the proportion of smoking in outdoor public places.

Observations of almost 5000 adolescents and adults were made at 91 sites across England, Scotland and New Zealand. The proportion of people seen smoking in British playgrounds was 2.8%, compared to 0% in New Zealand, although butts were found in the New Zealand playgrounds.

The proportion seen smoking in British streets and pedestrian areas was 7.3%, compared to 3% in New Zealand. However, 11% were smoking in New Zealand outdoor transport waiting areas, compared to 7% in Britain.

Lead researcher, Associate Professor George Thomson, says that the more widespread smokefree playground policies in New Zealand may explain the lack of people smoking in playgrounds compared to Britain.

He says that the methods developed through this research will help community groups demonstrate the level of smoking in different areas, and provide scientific evidence for local authorities to advance smokefree outdoor policies. The methods can also determine the number of children exposed to smoking normalisation.

“Smokefree outdoor areas help smokers to quit, help those who have quit to stay quit, and reduce the normalisation of smoking for children and youth. They also reduce litter, water pollution and cleaning costs for local authorities and ratepayers.”

A co-researcher, Dr Marie Russell, says the results show the need for policies to protect people from the health risks of second-hand smoke in bus queues, transport shelters and other outdoor transport waiting areas.

In Australia, California, Japan and other places, there is an increasing adoption of smokefree streets by local authorities. A number of jurisdictions similarly protect people in outdoor transport waiting areas from smoking.

This study has been published in the international journal Health & Place and was funded by the New Zealand Health Research Council, Regional Public Health (Wellington) and the New Zealand Centre for Sustainable Cities.

For further information contact:

Associate Professor George Thomson
Department of Public Health
University of Otago, Wellington
Tel: 04 918 6054
Mob: 027 819 3603

For a list of Otago experts available for media comment, please go to:

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