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Smoking: the authoritarian libertarians

Posted on 10 March 2011 .
Tags: BSA, British Social Attitudes, health and lifestyle, smoking, social and political attitudes

As part of its drive to cut smoking, the government announced yesterday (No Smoking Day) that from next year, large shops in England will have to keep cigarettes on sale well out of sight. It is also consulting on whether manufacturers should be forced to put cigarettes into plain packets.

For some, this is 'nudge' in action: making it easier for people to make the right choices. Andrew Lansley said as much - "we want to do everything we can to help people to choose to stop smoking'.  For others, it's alarming evidence of the nanny state. LBC presenter Iain Dale said that it's nonsensical for a government that believes in freedom to restrict such promotion if cigarettes are legal - even though he personally finds smoking a disgusting habit. On twitter he was particularly blunt: "Govt decision to ban advertising on cigarette packets is crass & redolent of the worst of New Labour's Nanny State."  (@iaindale)

We have looked at attitudes towards policies that restrict smoking, particularly following the bans on smoking in public places in Scotland (2006) and England and Wales (2007), as part of the 26th British Social Attitudes report. Support for a complete ban on smoking in pubs has grown tremendously: in England for example, only one quarter supported a ban in 1990 - this had risen to 46% by 2008. In Scotland the picture is even more marked: 58% were in favour of the ban by 2007. Attitudes correlate strongly with income: it's the less well off who are more resistant to the ban, probably because they are more likely to smoke themselves, as is well documented.

But what's really interesting is to take a closer look at the freedom argument. As part of the study we asked people a number of questions to see where they sat on a libertarian/authoritarian scale. (For example, attitudes to censorship; whether schools should teach children to obey authority, and so on).

Perhaps surprisingly, it is the libertarians who were most supportive of the smoking ban: 54% of the libertarians supported the ban in England, compared with only 44% of the authoritarians. This might simply be because libertarians are more likely to be middle class and hence less likely to smoke. Or it might be because libertarians are concerned about the freedom of non-smokers not to inhale other people's smoke.

But either way, if it's the libertarians who are in favour of smoking restrictions, then support for policies which others describe as the resurgence of the 'nanny state' does comes from some surprising places.

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