Voters, including many smokers, want tough action to make tobacco history

This blog takes me back to an old hunting ground, when I was President of YouGov and a trustee of ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) and YouGov first conducted major annual survey for ASH. This year’s survey assessed public attitudes to the Government’s declared ambition to reduce the number of smokers to 5 per cent of all adults by 2030.

An edited version of this blog has been published by The Times Red Box.

Credit where it’s due. Sometimes politicians do the right things for the right reasons and get the right results. Fifty years ago almost half of all British adults smoked. The official ONS figure is now 14 per cent. The fug of stale smoke has gone from offices, shops, restaurants, buses, trains and cinemas. Fewer people are dying of lung cancer.

At every stage in the process of tobacco control, MPs have gone with the flow of public opinion. With each new law – on cigarette advertising, health warnings, smoking in indoor public spaces, plain-paper packaging and so on – surveys have found majorities in favour before the legislation, and bigger majorities afterwards.

What now? These days most of us are able to live our lives untroubled by smokers’ fumes when we work, eat, play or travel. The minority who are still addicted to nicotine can buy e-cigarettes. The Government wants to go further, committing to publishing a plan this year to put us on track to be ‘smoke-free’ by 2030.  But what do voters think? Do they think we need to finish the job – or that we should simply declare victory over the curse of tobacco and move on?

The results of the latest research are clear; and they support the strategy advanced by the latest report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on smoking. YouGov surveyed more than 10,000 people throughout England for ASH (Action on Smoking and Health). It finds that, more than ever, the public wants ministers to keep going. Since 2010, the numbers saying the Government is doing too much have fallen from 21 to just 5 per cent, while those saying “not enough” have risen from 32 to 45 per cent. Added to the 35 per cent who think the Government is getting it about right, a total of 80 per cent want to maintain the current strategy or go further.

One of YouGov’s most striking findings is the transformation in the views of smokers. In 2010, 51 per cent of them said the Government was doing too much; only 9 per cent said “not enough”. This year’s figures are: too much: 19 per cent, not enough: 23 per cent. As a share of the total electorate, the proportion of people who smoke and object to the Government’s anti-smoking strategy has fallen from 10 per cent in 2010 to 3 per cent today.

This year’s survey then asked respondents what should happen now. First, it sought views about the Government’s overall strategy. It told respondents: “The Government has set a target to end smoking by 2030. This will mean fewer than 5% of people smoking” and asked people whether they support or opposed this. This is what YouGov found:

As the table shows, Conservative voters are just as keen as the population generally. No sign there of hostility to “nanny state” measures. Even among smokers, supporters outweigh opponents by a clear margin.

YouGov tested eleven specific policies. All are supported by big majorities, including banning all smoking in cars (support 67 per cent, oppose 15 per cent), increasing tax on cigarettes (66-15 per cent) and raising the age of sale from 18 to 21 (63-15 per cent). 

In practice, no government would do everything at once. Rather, the public is, in effect, giving ministers the freedom to decide the nature and pacing of future steps as it seeks to achieve its goal of reaching its target of reducing the number of smokers by 2030 to below 5 per cent.

That said, ministers might reasonably ask two questions: what do Conservative voters think – and could there be a backlash from smokers? YouGov’s data offer reassurance on both counts. On each of the eleven measures, the Conservative voters surveyed divide in much the same way as the wider public.

As for smokers, supporters outnumber opponents on nine of the measures to curb tobacco use, usually by large margins. For example, by 51-18 per cent, smokers back the proposal to require tobacco manufacturers to pay a levy to fund measures to help smokers quit, and stop teenagers acquiring the habit.

The only exceptions to this overall pattern among smokers are raising taxes (support 20 per cent, oppose 56 per cent) and banning smoking in cars (34-43 per cent).  Moreover, only tax rises provoke an absolute majority to outright opposition, and even here the number creeps only a little over the 50 per cent mark.

Taken together, these results suggest two conclusions. First, that the tide of public opinion, including that of Conservatives, continues to flow strongly in favour of further measures to reduce smoking. There are no signs that voters are saying: “thus far but no further”. The prevailing mood is of an electorate that sees the finishing line and is keen to reach it.

Second, it is surely significant that the share of the electorate that comprise smokers who think the government is doing too much has fallen to just three per cent. Broadly speaking, more smokers these days seem to be saying “help us quit” than “leave us alone”.

Together with the views of Conservative voters, these results suggest that ministers have little to fear politically from doing what they believe to be right.

The full data from YouGov’s survey can be viewed at: