College snuffs out smoking
It is mid-afternoon and smoking cessation officer Sue Pinchen takes an anxious call from a college manager who is having a crisis.
Lindsay MacDonald, in charge of student enrichment, quit smoking four days previously and her cravings for a cigarette are reaching a crescendo.
Fortunately, help is never far away at Gateshead college in Tyne and Wear, the first in the country to introduce a total smoking ban. It has appointed two smoking cessation officers to help staff and students deal with symptoms of withdrawal.
Ms Pinchen was with Ms MacDonald within minutes for a counselling session, and her craving soon subsided.
And the manager who is getting married in September became closer to achieving her goal of not being a smoker on her wedding day. To do that, she must break an 11-year addiction.
The fact that Gateshead will not permit any of its 800 staff or 22,000 students to light up on any part of the college grounds, even the car parks, makes her task easier.
"I was a 20-a-day smoker but I never had problems with the ban," she said.
"It was the right thing to do for the college and it has motivated me to stop smoking."I was worried about how I would cope when I was stressed. But I saw it as an opportunity to cut down and ultimately stop."
She said she would gather at a side entrance, "the staff smoking spot", with other regular smokers, several times a day. "There would be four or five people there constantly. It was mostly the same faces at the same times.
"Now I have decided to stop and it is good to know there is help at hand just along the corridor."
Ms Pinchen and her fellow SCO Darren Heathcote have received training and are permitted to prescribe nicotine patches.
Since the ban came into force on January 1, two smoking shelters have been demolished and ash-trays, once fixed to the outside of the buildings, have gone.
Gateshead has the highest smoking rate in the north-east of England, which has the highest smoking rate in the country. Nearly three out of 10 adults smoke.
The North-east has the lowest life expectancy in the country - three years less than the South-east.
However, Gateshead is in the vanguard of towns taking action against smoking.
The local council had banned it on its premises. The Metro Centre, one of the largest shopping malls in the country, prohibited it. A local pub was also one of the first in the country to forbid lighting up on its premises.
David Cheetham, Gateshead's principal, said its ban was first mooted in April last year following a discussion on bans elsewhere in the town. He added: "It is surprising how Gateshead is becoming synonymous with anti-smoking campaigns.
"Someone proposed introducing a ban here just as a comment. I am a lifelong non-smoker so I was quite pleased when somebody else raised it.
"It accelerated from there. We consulted people around the college - staff and students - and we discovered that the vast majority were broadly supportive. "The board gave the issue the greatest airing we ever had. They were cautious in terms of the impact on students, but in the end they decided to support it." He said the college has become a cleaner, brighter and more welcoming.
"We have had a long history of having to deal with students and staff who smoke. It created some very unpleasant environments.
"We were trying to encourage people to smoke in restricted areas, but all that did was to create a concentration of extremely unpleasant areas and someone had to clean up after them.
"We were never satisfied with how we were dealing with smoking. We were also aware of the risks from smoking from the health and safety perspective."
He said he was surprised by how little resistance there was to the ban. "I think our students appreciate it. I have had staff say to me that it is the best thing we have ever done. A number have said their health has improved as a consequence.
"It has improved both the appearance of the place and the well-being of our staff. As an employer I am terrified of the thought of the effects of passive smoking damaging the health of non-smoking staff.
"No responsible organisation can sanction smoking at work. The link between smoking and ill-health is too great a risk. It is inevitable that we will be at the front of a vanguard of change."
Jason Brand, the college's health and safety officer, said: "We have a lot of young people aged 14 to 16 coming into the college and I don't think we should allow them to be subjected to second-hand smoke, or to be under the influence of adults who are smoking."