BACKGROUND: School tobacco policies (STPs) might prove to be a promising strategy to prevent smoking initiation among adolescents, as there is evidence that the school environment can influence young people to smoke. STPs are cheap, relatively easy to implement and have a wide reach, but it is not clear whether this approach is effective in preventing smoking uptake.
OBJECTIVES: To assess the effectiveness of policies aiming to prevent smoking initiation among students by regulating smoking in schools.
SEARCH METHODS: We searched seven electronic bibliographic databases, including the Cochrane Tobacco Addiction Group specialized register, MEDLINE, EMBASE, PsycINFO and ERIC. We also searched the grey literature and ongoing trials resources. The most recent search was performed in May 2014.
SELECTION CRITERIA: We included cluster-randomised controlled trials (c-RCTs) in which primary and secondary schools were randomised to receive different levels of smoking policy or no intervention. Non-randomised controlled trials, interrupted time series and controlled before-after studies would also have been eligible. Cross-sectional studies were not formally included but we describe their findings and use them to generate hypotheses to inform future research.
DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: We independently assessed studies for inclusion in the review, and present a narrative synthesis, as the studies are too limited in quality to undertake a formal meta-analysis.
MAIN RESULTS: We found only one study which was eligible for inclusion in the review. It was judged to be at high risk of bias. The study compared two 'middle schools' from two different regions in China. The experimental conditions included the introduction of a tobacco policy, environmental changes, and communication activities, while the control condition was no intervention. After a year's follow-up the study found no differences in smoking prevalence between intervention and control schools. We also described 24 observational studies, the results of which we considered for hypothesis generation. In these, policy exposure was mainly described using face-to-face interviews with school staff members, and the outcome evaluation was performed using self-administered questionnaires. Most studies reported no differences in students' smoking prevalence between schools with formal STPs when compared with schools without policies. In the majority of studies in schools with highly enforced policies, smoking bans extended to outdoor spaces, involving teachers and including sanctions for transgressions, with assistance to quit for smokers plus support by prevention programmes, there was no significant difference in smoking prevalence when compared to schools adopting weaker or no policies.
AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: Despite a comprehensive literature search, and rigorous evaluation of studies, we found no evidence to support STPs. The absence of reliable evidence for the effectiveness of STPs is a concern in public health. We need well-designed randomised controlled trials or quasi-experimental studies to evaluate the effectiveness of school tobacco policies.