Prior to the smoking ban Forest commissioned a series of opinion polls to find out what the public thought about smoking in public places. Knowing that politicians and journalists would be sceptical of any poll carried out by Forest, we commissioned Populus, pollster to The Times, to do the work on our behalf.
We also took the decision to ask the same questions about public smoking that were being asked by the government-run Office for National Statistics. (Reassuringly, our results were very similar to theirs.)
Each time we commissioned a poll we were advised by Andrew Cooper, director of Populus. To this day I have no idea what Andrew's views are on smoking or government policy on tobacco. (He could be a rabid anti-smoker for all I know. Or a 40-a-day man, although I never saw him with a cigarette.) It was something we never discussed. It was neither relevant nor appropriate.
Compare this to Peter Kellner, president of YouGov, the country’s leading internet-based market research firm. On Monday I discovered that Kellner is chairman of the “editorial board of scientific and medical experts” that produced the latest ASH report, Beyond Smoking Kills. Yesterday (I quote from the press release issued by ASH) he declared:
“There is a terrible gap in life expectancy between the richest and poorest in British society. Smoking is by far the biggest single factor, accounting for half the difference. A child born today who never smokes will live, on average, ten years longer than a child who takes up smoking. The younger a smoker starts, the harder it is for them to quit.
“Our report sets out a comprehensive strategy for Government action to protect children from exposure to smoke and smoking, to support smokers to quit and to help smokers who are not yet ready to quit to reduce the harm they cause themselves. Smoking remains the greatest public health problem in our society – but we now have a great opportunity to stop the next generation from inheriting this lethal habit.”
And that's not all. Writing on the Guardian website, Kellner explained that:
“Earlier this year Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) commissioned YouGov to explore public attitudes in detail, as part of a report on the next steps for tobacco control, Beyond Smoking Kills, published today. Our first finding was that support for last year's ban is higher than ever. It had already grown from 51% in 2004, before the legislation was debated, to 72% before the ban took effect. It has now climbed further, to 77%. Even smokers now favour the ban, though by a narrower margin. This matters because a decline in support for existing measures would make it hard to introduce new ones. In fact, YouGov's research suggests that the ban has whetted the public's appetite – and, indeed, the appetite among many smokers – for further action.”
These figures may be true of ASH/YouGov polls, but it's worth noting that surveys conducted by Populus and the ONS prior to the ban produced very different results. For example, a poll by Populus for Forest, published on 7th February 2006 (a week before MPs voted for a comprehensive ban), showed clear public support for the government’s manifesto pledge to allow smoking in private members’ clubs and pubs that don’t serve food.
According to the survey, 59 percent believed that smoking should be allowed in pubs that don't serve food; with 63 percent supporting smoking in private members' clubs. The poll also found overwhelming support for the introduction of designated smoking rooms in pubs and bars that do not serve food (66 percent in favour, 30 percent opposed).
In 2007, a year after Scotland introduced a public smoking ban, another Forest/Populus poll (in Scotland) suggested that a clear majority continued to favour restrictions rather than a total ban. (See HERE.)
Meanwhile, annual surveys by the Office for National Statistics found that while the majority backed curbs on smoking, the majority did NOT support a comprehensive ban.
Why the difference between the various polls? Well, as I recall, ASH tended to offer people a stark choice: smoking or non-smoking (in "public" places). Forest/Populus and the Office for National Statistics gave people a choice of smoking, non-smoking, mostly smoking (with smoke-free areas), or mostly non-smoking (with separate smoking areas). (See THIS UK Polling Report from September 2005.) The most popular choice was non-smoking with separate smoking areas. Overall there was a clear majority in favour of restrictions but against prohibition.
The government knew this yet still went ahead with the ban. According to ASH, it was “literally a confidence trick”. Writing in the Guardian (19 July 2006), director Deborah Arnott and her sidekick Iain Wilmore boasted:
“It is essential that campaigners create the impression of inevitable success. Campaigning of this kind is literally a confidence trick: the appearance of confidence both creates confidence and demoralises the opposition. The week before the free vote we made sure the government got the message that we ‘knew’ we were going to win and it would be better for them to be on the winning side.”
Following the publication of Beyond Smoking Kills, some might think that ASH is repeating this "confidence trick". I couldn't possibly comment. What I am certain of is that there should be a clear distinction between a campaign group such as ASH and an independent polling organisation like YouGov. Thanks to Peter Kellner, that boundary is now blurred.