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Last Updated: Monday, 6 September, 2004, 05:15 GMT 06:15 UK
Public in two minds over health

Analysis
By Mark Easton
BBC News Home Editor

The great British public is currently being consulted about what should be done to improve public health.

But if government ministers were hoping the results would deliver solutions they will be frustrated.

One moment we want the government to ban anything which is bad for us, the next we say we do not think government should interfere in such matters.

Smoking
Many don't want a total smoking ban
For example, how does one reconcile these two findings in a poll commissioned by the BBC?

Almost 70% of those questioned think the government should try to wean people off the fags.

Yet 64% believe that whether or not people smoke is a matter for them.

HEALTH POLL: SMOKING
Key findings from the BBC's poll on attitudes to public health

It is the same story for alcohol - large majorities think government should encourage us to drink healthily but simultaneously believe how much people drink is up to them and government should butt out.

So what is going on?

The BBC's Healthy Britain survey is one of the most detailed snapshots of public opinion in this area ever taken.

Anxiety and distrust

Britain is like a well-intentioned but fallible smoker.
It reveals a nation which is clearly anxious about public health and wants someone to make the problem go away.

But we are also a country that distrusts politicians and values individual freedoms.

We are torn. "Stop me, stop me!" we say in one breath.

But when the image of that cream cake floats into our mind we balk at the idea of the "health police" coming between us and our waistline.

The phenomenon will be familiar to anyone who has tried to give up smoking.

Brimming with good intentions, we tell our friends that should they see us about to light up they have permission to snatch up the dreaded fags and crush them before our eyes.

But, of course, our friends wouldn't remain friends very long if they actually did such a thing.

Faced with our failure, we expect sympathy and support.

Britain is like that well-intentioned but fallible smoker.

Mixed messages

Our survey shows that most people, (55%) would like to see the age youngsters can buy tobacco raised from 16 to 21.

Some 80% think it should be raised to 18. We want government to get tougher with those who sell tobacco to under-age children.

Obesity
Obesity is a major problem
Two-thirds of us would ban smoking in any public place, including pubs and clubs.

These figures suggest Britain has turned against the weed.

With Scotland set to follow Ireland's example and forbid people from lighting up in bars and restaurants, the momentum is firmly with the anti-smoking lobby.

Yet a closer look at the figures suggests the issue is not quite that black and white.

When asked to choose from a range of options for work-places, the largest group (44%) preferred the idea of designated smoking areas to a ban.

One in five people thinks it should be up to individual employers to decide in consultation with staff.

Less than a third - 32% said they wanted total prohibition.

Radicalism

Nevertheless, the survey shows that many of us do want a radical solution.

A majority (53%) want even higher tax on cigarettes.

A significant minority would like to see parents prosecuted if they let their under-age kids smoke, and a surprising proportion, even among smokers, believes the government should move towards making tobacco an illegal drug.

The same contradictions are evident in attitudes to how government should tackle obesity, alcohol abuse and sexually transmitted infections.

Do something, but don't tell me how to live my life.

We see these issues as matters of "public health" (the politicians' problem) rather than "personal responsibility" (my problem).

Government role

In the USA there is a lively debate as to where responsibility of state and individual falls in relation to diet.

This new opinion poll suggests deep anxiety about public health.
Should government do more, or should the burden fall on those who are overweight?

Increasingly, private health insurers in America are prevented from charging obese clients higher premiums.

Generation XXL is a powerful lobby group. But as Radley Balko of the right-wing Cato Institute recently put it: "If the government is paying for my anti-cholesterol medication, what incentive is there for me to put down the cheeseburger?"

He argues that healthy lifestyles should be rewarded and poor ones penalised, an idea we tested in our poll.

Should people who refuse to take responsibility for their health have to contribute toward the cost of their care or even be denied NHS treatment?

Once again, sizeable minorities agreed with those ideas, suggesting that the debate about where responsibility lies is far from closed.

Smokers, of course, can argue that they already pay far more in tax than it costs to treat them and currently it is politically inconceivable to undermine the principle of free-access to the NHS.

Ministers have spent the past few weeks trying to formulate a "New Labour" philosophy on public health and have concluded that it is not for politicians to tell people how to live their lives.

Banning is not the New Labour way. But this new opinion poll suggests deep anxiety about public health as the government prepares to publish its White Paper on the subject this Autumn.

Britain wants something done.

ICM conducted a nationwide phone poll of 1,010 adults between 20 and 22 August.




SEE ALSO:
Public asked how to boost health
03 Mar 04  |  Health
'We need to improve health now'
03 Mar 04  |  Health


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