Measuring visual exposure to smoking behaviours: a viewshed analysis of smoking at outdoor bars and cafés across a capital city's downtown area

BMC Public Health. 2014 Apr 6;14:300. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-14-300.


Background: The influence of visual exposure to health-related behaviours, such as smoking, is increasingly acknowledged in the public health literature. Social contagion or normalisation is thought to operate through the visibility of those behaviours. There has been a lack of systematic and comprehensive approaches to quantifying visual exposure to these behaviours over a relatively large geographic area. We describe the novel application of a geographic tool, viewshed analysis, to estimate visual exposure to smoking outside bars/cafés across a downtown area.

Methods: Smoking was observed for different times and days of the week at 14 outdoor areas of bars/cafés throughout downtown Wellington, New Zealand. We used these data to extrapolate to other bars/cafés with outdoor seating. We then conducted viewshed analyses to estimate visual exposure to smoking at bars/cafés for all public outdoor spaces.

Results: We observed a smoking point prevalence of 16%. Visibility analyses indicated that estimated visible smoking was highest in the evenings (7-8 pm), where the average values across Wednesday and Friday ranged from zero up to 92 visible smokers (mean=1.44). Estimated visible smoking at midday ranged from zero to 13 (mean=0.27). Values were also higher at the end of the week compared with midweek in the evening. Maps indicate that streets with high levels of retail shops and hospitality areas had high values of estimated visible smokers, particularly in the evening where numbers were consistently above 50.

Conclusions: This paper highlights a useful method for measuring the extent of visual exposure to smoking behaviours across relatively large areas using a geospatial approach. Applying this method in other locations would require consideration of place-specific characteristics which impact on visibility and could be improved through more sophisticated extrapolation of observational data across the study area. The findings of this and similar research could ultimately support the expansion of smokefree public spaces.

Publication types

  • Observational Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Environmental Exposure / analysis*
  • Environmental Monitoring / methods*
  • Environmental Monitoring / statistics & numerical data
  • Geographic Mapping*
  • Humans
  • New Zealand / epidemiology
  • Prevalence
  • Public Facilities / classification
  • Public Facilities / statistics & numerical data
  • Restaurants
  • Smoking / epidemiology*
  • Social Behavior
  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution / analysis*
  • Weather


  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution