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The “smokers survey” that can’t tell us anything about “smokers” Reply

We hear that FOREST is paying for a survey with the aim “To find out what smokers really think”.

This is a laudable aim – and chimes with an interest of ours. We don’t know enough about who smokers are, what they are thinking or how they perceive the actions of public health interests (or indeed commercial ones).

In particular there is a need to explore how views and desires vary amongst the 900,000 people in Scotland who smoke tobacco – why do some groups smoke more than others? What services or functions are people seeking from smoking? Why does a consistent majority say that they want to stop?

Sadly this FOREST survey will not help us with this.

Surveys such as the Scottish Household Survey, from which we get the figure that two-thirds of smokers in Scotland want to stop, take great care to make their sample as representative of the general population as it can be. Crucially they are confident enough in their approach to publish full details of their methodology, including sampling, in their reports. This is why we present the results of these surveys as the best available representations of the population as a whole, including those who smoke.

The FOREST survey is being promoted on their website and social media, and punted around other pro-smoking/anti-regulation networks. A message urging participation is being sent to “friends of FOREST”.

The people reached by these requests will not represent the general population of “smokers”, but instead the small sub-set of smokers who engage with FOREST and/or other anti-regulation interests and who feel motivated to complete a survey distributed by those interests. To put it another way, a survey sent around to ASH Scotland supporters would likely indicate considerable scepticism about FOREST’s claim to speak on behalf of smokers, but we could not simply use this to claim that the whole population thinks this way. A survey of your friends only tells you about your friends.

Now it is perfectly valid to seek the views of this group, and most organisations will want to better understand their supporter base. But as a means of producing results about smokers as a whole, this survey has been rendered completely useless.

The stated aim “To find out what smokers really think” seems to have missed this crucial point. Surely FOREST is not intending to use the results of this survey to make claims about smokers as a whole? To allay our concerns, will they state clearly that their survey cannot be taken as representative of the views of all smokers and will not be presented as such?

I wonder.

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