PSHE: Anti-smoking lessons

Written by: Ian Macdonald | Published:
Rise Above: A scene from the Public Health England Rise Above for Schools resource, which tackles a range of PSHE-related issues, including smoking (Image: Supplied)

Where does smoking fit into your PSHE curriculum? Ian Macdonald offers some pointers and discusses the skills that anti-smoking lessons can foster in pupils

Building resilience to peer pressure and having the confidence to say “no” can be invaluable life-skills for all young people.

As a PSHE teacher, your students will be faced by an increase in cyber-bullying, body image worries and a host of other issues, so you may feel like smoking is less of a concern than it was in previous years.

However, in my experience, lessons on smoking can act as a useful opportunity for class discussions about how to avoid peer pressure, in turn helping schools to encourage positive behaviours that apply to a range of PSHE curriculum topics.

Smoking among young people

The rate of young people who smoke has been steadily decreasing for a number of years. In 2016, NHS figures show that seven per cent of 15-year-olds said that they smoked regularly, the lowest recorded level since 1982 (25 per cent). However, we know that smoking among young people increases with the number of smokers in the home.

The reduction is thanks to a range of measures. Public Health England’s recent exhibition that charts 100 years of public health marketing shows how perceptions of smoking have changed over the 20th and 21st century, from the promotion of smoking as beneficial to a soldier’s health during the First World War, to using the power of celebrity to front anti-smoking campaigns in the 1960s and beyond.

More recent interventions have included advertising restrictions, behaviour change campaigns, the ban on smoking in public places, and laws on the display of tobacco products in shops. At a local level, community interventions such as local stop smoking services and enforcement of tobacco regulation at the point of sale have contributed to making tobacco less appealing and less accessible to young people. This is all welcome news.

However, we also know that two-thirds of adult smokers started before the age of 18, and people in more deprived areas are more likely to smoke and are less likely to quit (Health Matters: Smoking and quitting in England, Public Health England, 2015). As educators, this tells us that we shouldn’t rest on our laurels.

In truth, lessons on smoking should be a central element of your PSHE curriculum. These lessons can be a useful way to develop vital life-skills, where smoking is used as a starting point for a wider discussion about other risky behaviours and the power of peer pressure. By helping pupils to practise the life-skills of negotiation and avoidance of unwanted situations, lessons on smoking can have wider applications when we look at other topics such as drugs, alcohol and underage sex.

Using data to influence young people

In lessons about smoking, using national or local data can be really impactful, especially if students are devising their own campaigns or displays to prevent their peers from smoking.

Encouraging students to research smoking-related facts and stats will help them to persuade their peers to resist pressure to smoke, as well as dispel any misconceptions they may already have around smoking – especially as young people tend to overestimate the number of their friends who do smoke, drink or try drugs.

Smoking is also an expensive habit, so students could help persuade their peers to quit by showing them the associated costs of smoking. For example, students could work out how much a smoker might spend on cigarettes in a day, a week or a year. They could come up with ideas on how to better spend that money, or equate the cost to other items they may wish to buy. This comparative presentation of data can be particularly useful when helping students to visualise the impact smoking can have on their personal lives.

Here are two handy sources for local and national statistics about smoking among young people:

  • Some local authorities publish local data, which will help to make the lesson more personal and close-to-home for students. Public Health England provides selected data online (see further information).
  • The Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use Among Young People in England reports provide useful and up-to-date national statistics on smoking among young people.

Modelling positive behaviour/social influencers

Another effective approach when developing strategies to help students resist peer pressure is the influence of positive role-models, including popular social media figures like vloggers, YouTubers and gamers. This approach can encourage your students to independently explore the reasons why they make certain choices – and this is particularly true for smoking and the resistance of peer pressure.

Rise Above for Schools – launched last year by Public Health England – takes this approach to good effect. The lesson plan on smoking uses peer-to-peer discussions, videos and activities to get students talking about scenarios where young people are encouraged or pressured to smoke. They will identify techniques for resisting this pressure, using interactive “pick-a-path” role-play films which encourage them to explore tricky situations and practise how to say no.

The video content from Rise Above for Schools is co-created by young people and led by social influencers from a range of backgrounds. The programme also provides a starter activity to help you carry out a baseline assessment of students’ prior knowledge, skills and understanding, which is a vital part of tracking and measuring the effectiveness of your approach.

I would suggest book-ending other class-based activities with a group discussion that gives students the time and space they need to explore their views. By taking this approach, we can support students in developing coping strategies and life-skills to avoid the influence of peer pressure when it comes to smoking – and perhaps other issues.

Once they have a firm grasp of those skills and strategies, they are better placed to avoid other risky behaviours further down the line. SecEd

  • Ian Macdonald is a PSHE specialist and health education specialist, working with young people, public health professionals and commissioners to achieve positive health outcomes for young people.

Rise Above for Schools

Rise Above for Schools from Public Health England provides PSHE resources to support secondary school teachers when promoting positive health, wellbeing and resilience among young people aged 11 to 16. Visit and for the specific smoking lesson plan, see



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