Smoking and community engagement

All campuses of the University of Newcastle (UoN), Australia, are now smoke free.

I love working in a smoke free environment and don’t miss the days when smoking was much more common. When I was much younger, I had to put up with smoking at meetings, at concerts, on public transport, in restaurants and even in my guitar lessons. Dire warnings of the consequences of banning smoking in restaurants, public places and so on have proven to be unfounded.

At the same time I wonder about the implications for community engagement of the Uni becoming a smoke free campus.

I’m proud of the commitment my University has made to equity of access to higher education. The commitment is backed up by action and UoN has a history of supporting students from a range of backgrounds to succeed at university. We are the largest provider of enabling programs in Australia [which provide alternative pathways to university entry] and 27% of our students come from low socio-economic backgrounds (compared to a sector average of 16%).

In practice this means that the UoN actively supports people from under-represented communities, people with a mental illness, young people who are (or have been) in out of home care, and people who are first in family (if not first in community) to start, and often finish, a university education.

A common experience for people at uni from underrepresented groups is they feeling they don’t belong (Karimshah and colleagues, 2013). One of the students involved in Uni4You, a program run by the Family Action Centre supporting students facing multiple layers of disadvantaged who are in an enabling program, described her feelings when she first started.

So that was very daunting for me, the first day. I was really, really scared. I had all these thoughts going in my mind, “What are you doing here? You’re not intelligent enough.” Yeah, I was just really out of my comfort zone. I didn’t know anybody. I walked in there and you just saw all these tiers of chairs everywhere and I went and sat down and just the enormity of the room too. I’m thinking, oh, no, what am I doing here? I just … half of me wanted to be there and the other half wanted to run. (“Shine Brightly”)

According to a report Tobacco in Australia from Cancer Council Victoria:

The prevalence of smoking is significantly higher among lower socio-economic groups, particularly so in groups facing multiple personal and social difficulties and challenges (Scollo & Winstanley, 2016, sect, 9.0).

I wonder, what impact having a smoke free campus will have on students who smoke and already feel they don’t belong? Will it be just another barrier to them making the transition to university life?

We are a big campus (140 hectares or 360 acres) and there is no smoking anywhere on the grounds. It isn’t just a matter of leaving the building to have a smoke. It is a long walk (or a drive) to find a spot where you are allowed to smoke. Of course the rules are going to be broken a great deal.

The decision also has an impact on the use of Uni facilities to engage marginalised groups.

When we facilitate Alternative to Violence Project (AVP) workshops with people facing multiple layers of disadvantage, there are usually smokers in the group. For some of these participants, smoking is one way they relieve stress. I’m not condoning it as a strategy, but I also want to make it as easy as possible for people to access potential support. Even though the Family Action Centre (which is part of UoN and is on campus) has a great training room, I’m not sure we will continue to use it as a venue if participants are not able to smoke.

AVP workshops are built on respect and acceptance.  I don’t want to start the workshop by giving participants the message that we don’t respect their choices, and that they have no say in whether they are able to smoke for the six hours of the workshop. We need a venue that doesn’t force the facilitators into a position of either enforcing a smoking ban, or turning a blind eye to people ignoring the rules.

Until this month, the University had designated smoking areas scattered around the campus. At least this way, smoking did not interfere with other people, but smokers still had the option of having a smoke.

The reality is that people are going to continue to smoke on campus. By having designated smoking areas, people who are not yet ready to quit smoking (or don’t want to quit) have a legal option. As a health policy, banning smoking makes perfect sense, but the University tries to address a multitude of other complex problems. Going smoke free may make it harder to engage communities and individuals we already struggle to engage, thus making it harder to address the range of complex problems they face.


Karimshah, A., Wyder, M., Henman, P., Tay, D., Capelin, E., & Sho, P. (2013). Overcoming adversity among low SES students: A study of strategies for retention. Australian Universities’ Review, 55(2), 5-14. Available from

Scollo, M., & Winstanley, M. (2016). Tobacco in Australia: Facts and issues. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria. Available from

If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:

  1. What are Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops?
  2. 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement
  3. What are complex problems?
  4. Ethics and community engagement
  5. What are social models of health?
  6. 7 principles guiding my work

If you find any problems with the blog, (e.g., broken links or typos) I’d love to hear about them. You can either add a comment below or contact me via the Contact page.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
This entry was posted in Being an academic, Working with communities and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Smoking and community engagement

  1. Great piece Graeme. I’ve been thinking about it as well and am worried about the implications of the blanket ban. I wonder who the zero tolerance approach is intended to benefit. And there is also an element of double standards if we consider the fact that there are many pollutants around us but the University has decided to focus only on tobacco.

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