Objective The aims of the present study were to explore the beliefs of Australian experts in tobacco control and change champions working in mental health and tobacco cessation, and to identify measures for addressing the problem of high smoking rates for people with mental illness. Methods Qualitative interviews were undertaken to explore participants' views, and the Delphi technique was used to achieve consensus on ways in which the problem would be best addressed. Results This consensus centred on the need for leadership within the mental health system. The problem was reconceptualised from being solely the responsibility of the mental health sector into an issue that requires the combined resources of a partnership and shared leadership between government and non-government services, public health leaders, policy makers and people with mental illness and their families. Conclusions Collaboration would raise the priority of the issue, reduce the debilitating effect of stigma and discrimination within the mental health sector and would place smoking reduction firmly on the political and public agenda. A recovery-orientated focus would increase the skill base and be inclusive of workers, families and carers of people with mental illness who face smoking issues on a daily basis. Reconceptualising this as an issue that would benefit from cooperation and partnerships would disrupt the notion that the problem is solely the responsibility of the mental health sector. What is known about the topic? Rates of smoking have remained high for people with mental illness despite population-wide public health strategies successfully reducing smoking rates in the general population. For people with mental illness, the benefits of quitting smoking for both their mental and physical health are overshadowed by concerns about the complexity of their needs. There is a lack of knowledge about how smoking cessation support can be improved to increase success rates in smokers with mental illness. What does this paper add? The present study is the first to bring a cross-sector lens of public health and mental health 'experts' together to discuss the reasons for the high rates of smoking among people with mental illness and to obtain their shared agreement on solutions. This Australian-specific study analyses participants' responses to the problem representation and reveals what the issue is considered to be, where action should occur and how the problem should be resolved. What are the implications for practitioners? For the Australian context, there is a need for leadership and a consistent smoke-free message about the benefits of not smoking. Staff working in mental health require training in providing brief interventions, motivational interviewing and pharmacological support. Joining together as a partnership of government and non-government services, including public health leaders and policy makers, and involving people with mental illness and their families, would benefit all concerned.