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Public attitudes about tobacco smoke in workplaces: the importance of workers’ rights in survey questions
  1. G W Thomson,
  2. N Wilson
  1. Department of Public Health, Wellington School of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Otago, Wellington South, New Zealand
  1. Correspondence to:
 George W Thomson
 Department of Public Health, Wellington School of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Otago, Box 7343, Wellington South, New Zealand;

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The importance of public opinion in the formation of smokefree places policies is indicated by the efforts of the tobacco industry to obscure issues and counter information.1,2 Over 30% of New Zealand workers are currently estimated to be exposed to secondhand smoke (SHS) at work.3 New legislation was passed in December 2003 that will have the effect of banning smoking in nearly all New Zealand workplaces, including bars/pubs.4

Using data from two sets of national telephone surveys by UMR Research Ltd and CM Research Ltd5–7 (table 1) we examined: (1) New Zealand survey responses during 1999–2003 on smoke-free bars/pubs; and (2) response differences between questions.

Table 1

 New Zealand public attitudes about smoking in pubs and bars, 1999–2003

The UMR surveys show a 21% absolute increase between May 2000 and April 2003 in support for smoke-free bars—7% per year (p < 0.00001). The CM Research surveys show an increase from 64% to 80% between 2001 and 2003 in those who agreed that bar workers have a right to a smoke–free workplace—7% per year.

There were substantially different responses about completely smoke-free bars/pubs, depending on the question asked. In 2001, whereas the response to question 1 showed 38% in favour of a complete bar/pub smoking ban, question 2 could be interpreted as showing only 26% support. When the question was about workers rights generally (question 3), 85% gave support, but when the question was about the rights of bar/pub workers (question 4), only 64% gave support. This general pattern was repeated in 2003.

These survey data indicate that attitudes on smoking in bars/pubs can change significantly over two or three years. Factors that may have contributed to this change included: (1) media coverage concerning draft smoke-free environments legislation (introduced in 1999); (2) advocacy activities; (3) mass media campaigns on the hazards of SHS.

The difference between the results for questions 1 and 2 could be explained by the difference between a question that is about the proposed policy (Do you support a complete ban?) compared to one which was focused on smokers’ rights (Should people be able to smoke?). The difference could also be explained by the provision of a compromise option (“in set areas”) within question 2. Differences in the survey methodologies could possibly also have contributed to the different responses between questions 1 and 2.

Questions 3 and 4 show the difference that extra context can give—when the workers’ smoke-free rights were located specifically in bars/pubs, there was less support for them. A similar change was shown in a 1996 Western Australian survey for ACOSH (Australian Council on Smoking and Health), which showed that 85% “opposed smoking in the workplace”, but only 56% opposed smoking in pubs.8

The New Zealand experience suggests (1) that the equality of bar/pub workers’ rights with other workers’ rights needs to be emphasised by health advocates, (2) that including a context of the rights of those harmed by SHS in survey questions concerning attitudes to smoke-free environments will produce different results from questions without that context, and (3) that a compromise option, within questions about smoking restrictions, decreases the apparent support for completely smoke-free settings.