An evaluation of the #smokefreesidelines campaign, which was designed to stop parents and carers from smoking on the sidelines when watching youth football, has found the initiative to be hugely successful.

Smokefree Sidelines was launched 12 months ago by Addictions Research Group at the University of East Anglia (UEA), after development work by NHS Norwich CCG as part of its Healthy Norwich project. It was promoted to clubs by Norfolk Football Association.

In total, more than 30 youth clubs signed up to the scheme, accounting for more than 1,200 youth players.

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths in Norfolk. This campaign recognises one approach to address this is to reduce the likelihood of children seeing adults smoking behaviour as the norm.

Now, one year on, #smokefreesidelines has undergone a formal evaluation by experts at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Researchers visited clubs to observe smoking behaviour, look for discarded smoking materials and interview families and staff. Their evaluation report said that, over time, clubs who signed up to #smokefreesidelines demonstrated “a small but important change in observations of smoking. Particularly marked were changes to the environment (a reduction in smoking debris) and the introduction and widespread use of the smokefree sidelines promotional materials. This suggests a successful and positive move towards the denormalisation of smoking at youth football games. There was strong support from parents and coaches for not smoking on the sidelines.”

Dr Caitlin Notley, a Senior Lecturer from the Norwich Medical School who led the evaluation, said: “We are delighted to have been involved in evaluating this innovative project.

Community based initiatives like #smokefreesidelines are an important part of the public health approach to denormalise the visibility of smoking, thus contributing to decreased smoking prevalence in the UK.

“It is important that we are able to evidence the effectiveness of our efforts to prevent the uptake of smoking by young people, and we hope that our evaluation helps to support wider efforts to ultimately prevent premature smoking related deaths.”

Rachel Hunt from Norwich CCG is behind the project, she said: “We are thrilled to learn that parents are supportive of #smokefreesidelines. As well as 30 Norfolk clubs signing up, the city of Hull has told us they will be adopting #smokefreesidelines, which shows this is a project that many people agree with and which is having a positive effect.”

Rebecca Burton, Marketing and Communications Manager at Norfolk County FA said: “It’s been great to be part of the development and implementation of the #smokefreesidelines campaign and I’m thrilled that it’s now beginning to spread out of Norfolk to other areas of the country.

“The evaluation from UEA has delivered some extremely positive news surrounding not only the perceptions of coaches and parents regarding the impact of the initiative on their players but also a wider acknowledgement of the influence of coaches and adults as role models to children.”

When local youth football clubs join the campaign, they can obtain banners, posters, flags and pitch-side tape to remind everyone that no-one should smoke in front of the kids on the pitch.

This means parents and visitors are asked to refrain from smoking on playing fields and especially the pitch side lines.

The evaluation report also adds: “In sociological terms, tobacco smoking can be viewed as increasingly ‘denormalised’ within our society. It is simply less visible to the new generation of young people. There is consensus that changing social smoking norms helps positively influence children’s decisions not to start smoking. Sport provides an opportunity to be an exemplar for health behaviours and may represent a ‘credible source’ demonstrating positive health messages to young people.”

The UEA evaluators have made a series of recommendations for ‘next steps’. They include:

  • Investigating whether smoking bans on youth football sidelines should be considered
  • Continuing to encourage youth football cubs to adopt the voluntary #smokefreesidelines approach
  • Rolling out #smokefreesidelines to other sports such as cricket and hockey

The Healthy Norwich project has also introduced signs in children’s parks in Norwich and parts of Broadland district, asking people not to smoke near children playing.