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Smoke-free environments as a catalyst for change

18 October 2023

Many smokers are aware of the risks they run and many want to quit. What if we can give them a push? Not by motivating them more (there is often enough motivation) or by providing them with more knowledge (we know that smoking is unhealthy), but by making adjustments to the environment.  

Smoking in public indoor spaces has been prohibited for years. More and more outdoor environments are also becoming smoke-free, such as stations, outdoor platforms and school grounds. But is this actually effective? And do smoke-free outdoor environments help reduce smoking? And how do smokers feel about this? We looked into it, on behalf of Health Funds for Smoke Free! 

The role of the environment in behaviour 

We know from behavioural sciences that the environment plays an important role in behaviour. Both social influences (what do and think other people around us?) and the design of the physical environment influence our thinking and actions. In general, behaviour occurs when the applicable social norm is in line with the desired behaviour and the environment makes the behaviour possible or easy. At the same time, behaviour does not occur when it is considered strange or abnormal and/or the environment makes the behaviour difficult. 

A good example of this is the smoking ban for public indoor spaces that was introduced in the Netherlands about 20 years ago. Workplaces were the first to be made smoke-free (who can imagine that people used to smoke inside offices), followed by catering and other public indoor spaces.  

The effects of these coercive behavioural interventions are significant and the number of smokers has decreased considerably since then. The positive effects can partly be attributed to the prohibitive nature of the intervention. The ban brings hassle; people had to get up and move around if they were inside and wanted to smoke. And from behavioural sciences we know: the more hassle, the less likely people are to do it. In addition, the ban has had a significant impact on the prevailing social norm. By marking smoking in certain settings as unacceptable and making it less visible, a clear signal is given that 'we' no longer consider smoking normal. Resulting in fewer smokers. 

Smoke-free outdoor areas 

More and more outdoor areas are now also being made smoke-free. The question is to what extent this measure for outdoor areas is just as effective as the ban on smoking in indoor areas?  

My colleagues Stefan Elbers and Sabine Hooijmans have investigated this and looked at the extent to which a smoking ban in outdoor environments helps smokers and ex-smokers to reduce or not smoke. The most important conclusion from the research: yes! The research shows that almost one in four smokers who visit smoke-free environments indicate that a smoke-free environment helps them to smoke less on a daily basis. This is even higher among smokers who want to quit in the coming year (37%).  

The potential of the intervention is also seen by smokers themselves: almost one in five smokers indicate that smoke-free environments can encourage them to quit smoking, and for smokers who already want to quit, this is even one in three. The conclusion we can draw: smoke-free outdoor environments contribute to a smoke-free society. 

See also the blog on the Smoke-Free Generation website about this research. 

This article was issued under our former global brand name: Kantar Public.  

Stefan Elbers
Client Director Behaviour Change

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