There is a little press release spat going on between the Tobacco Manufacturers Association and ASH, the anti-smoking pressure group over a poll published by ASH earlier this week. The poll, carried out by the BMRB, claimed to show that 73% of people would support a complete ban on smoking in pall workplaces, including all restaurants and pubs, some of which are to be excluded from the government’s proposed ban. A couple of hours later, the Tobacco Manufacturers Association hit back with a press release claiming that the figures were distorted and that in reality less than a third of people supported a total ban. So, what’s the real picture?

Obviously where you are allowed to smoke is a long running argument and both sides like to use rival opinion polls to demonstrate that everyone agrees with them. You get issues like this sometimes, business support for the Euro was one (which resulted in a long running argument between ICM and MORI about whether businesses with under 10 employees should be included in such surveys or not), fox hunting was another.

The simple picture is this – if you conduct polls that ask a straight yes or no question about whether people would approve of a complete smoking ban in pubs, about two-thirds say yes.

If, on the other hand, you ask people what they would like done about smoking in pubs, and give them a list of options such as a complete ban, or making all pubs have a no-smoking area, or better ventilation or so on, then most people opt for making pubs have no smoking sections (or making pubs no smoking with special smoking sections, which amounts to much the same thing) and against having an overall ban.

In the first group there is the recent BMRB poll commissioned by ASH, but there are also several polls commissioned by non-partisan companies. In an ICM survey for the BBC back in July 2004 they asked whether “the Government should ban smoking in enclosed public spaces such as pubs and restaurants” – 65% of people thought they should. A second ICM survey for the Guardian, in October 2004, asked if respondents approved or disapproved “of a ban on smoking in all enclosed public places, such as pubs, restaurants and offices?” 66% of people approved. A YouGov poll for KPMG found almost identical results – 64% supported a ban on smoking in pubs and restaurants. So, all the recent polls seem to agree on a figure of around two-thirds support.

Meanwhile, if you ask people how they would like to see smoking in pubs dealt with, and give them a list of possible options including things other than an outright ban, you get very different results. The Office of National Statistics carry out an annual poll that asks about attitudes to smoking. It shows that around 65% of people would like “restrictions” on smoking, but asked what sort of restrictions people would like to see only 31% say they would like a complete ban; most people prefer seperate smoking and non-smoking areas.

Populus have done at least two polls with this sort of question design. A May 2004 poll on behalf of Forest found that only 24% of people supported a total ban, a May 2005 poll, this time for the TMA, found that only 26% wanted a complete ban. In both cases respondents were given alternative choices to a straightforward ban, and in both cases respondents preferred to have smoking and non-smoking sections in pubs. If you ask the question in this way, then support for a total ban stands somewhere between a quarter and a third.

So, what’s really happening is that the anti-smoking lobby and the Tobacco lobby are both telling the truth, both their figures are accurate and supported by figures from various different companies. They are just measuring entirely different things. Given a free choice of how best to deal with smoky pubs, people prefer to opt for only partial bans, with smoking sections in non-smoking pubs or vice-versa. A complete ban is only the first choice of a minority of people, most people prefer a more tolerant approach. However, if a government was going to actually introduce a total ban, then the majority of people would be supportive of it. The obvious implication is that there is a substantial section of people out there whose personal preference would be to have smoking and non-smoking sections in pubs, but if it was introduced would also be supportive of a total ban.

What the polls do tend to agree on is that support for a smoking ban seems to be rising – the annual ONS surveys have seen support for smoking restrictions in pubs rise from 48% back in 1996 to 65% in 2004. Given alternative options, support for a total ban went from 20% in 2003 to 31% in 2004. Back in 2001 a similar BMRB poll for the TMA showed only 17% in support of a total ban.

Finally it’s worth remembering that the govenment’s actual proposals is not to ban smoking in all pubs, but to ban it in pubs that serve food. AYouGov poll in June 2005 found that 50% of people were strongly in favour of the actual proposal, with a further 29% favouring it on balance. Only 7% were strongly opposed. This is up very slightly from an indentical question last November, when 47% were strongly supportive.

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