Public want government action on healthy lifestyles, says new poll by The King's Fund

Three quarters of the population want active government intervention to discourage people from putting their own health at risk, according to a new The King's Fund survey. Nine out of ten people think individuals are responsible for their own health, yet more than 60 per cent of the population believe the government should intervene to tackle poverty as the most effective way of preventing illness.

Public Attitudes to Public Health Policy was conducted by research consultancy Opinion Leader Research (OLR), which interviewed a representative sample of over 1,000 people across the UK. It was co-developed and funded by the Health Development Agency and supported by the Department of Health.

On specific government interventions, the survey shows that:

  • Nine out of ten people want healthier school meals
  • Two thirds of people want a smoking ban in public places
  • 80 per cent of people want government action to ensure fruit and vegetables become cheaper
  • 82 per cent want laws to limit salt, fat and sugar in foods
  • 73 per cent want a stop on advertising junk foods to children
  • 72 per cent want food labels informing them of nutritional value.

The poll's response varied according to socio-economic class. More people from the lower groups wanted cheaper fruit and vegetables and free access to sports facilities while more people from higher socio-economic groups identified action on lifestyle issues such as smoking and alcohol as being important. Those in lower socio-economic groups feel they have less control over their own health, are more likely to expect to get ill in future and are more likely than those who are better off to want the NHS to focus on treating the sick rather than preventing illness.

More than 40 per cent of people, mainly from lower socio-economic groups, cite too many factors outside their individual control for them to be held responsible for their own health. The two groups move closer together on the issue of banning smoking in public places, with 71 per cent of higher socio-economic groups and 66 per cent of lower groups supporting it.

The King's Fund chief executive Niall Dickson said:

'This poll goes a long way to debunking the myth that the public are afraid of a 'nanny state'. Contrary to what many claim, the public does want the government to be bolder and take action. However, it also shows the size of the challenge the government faces in getting the balance right, between informing and advising people about health, introducing social and economic measures that enable people to make healthy choices and using bans and other forms of regulation. The government has to be particularly careful in making sure people from lower socio-economic groups have the same opportunities to make healthy choices as the better off.'

Paul Streets, Chief Executive, Health Development Agency said:

'This is a clear signal that a stronger partnership for health between the government and the public is needed to reduce ill-health. One startling outcome is the difference in attitude between the socio-economic groups where people in lower groups feel they have less control over their health. Barriers such as the high cost of fresh fruit and vegetables and limited free access to sports facilities are preventing them from leading a healthy lifestyle.'

The survey revealed that people favour government interventions that impact on 'the nation' over those directly affecting themselves. People express concern about the cost to taxpayers of people who take risks with their health, and said they found clear government messages like 'don't smoke' easier to understand than messages about eating or drinking which tell them to consume a certain amount of units. The public were also questioned about alcohol and sexual health.

Public Attitudes to Public Health Policy is published today as the government closes its public consultation for its Choosing Health? programme, which will lead to a White Paper on health later in the year.

Notes to editors: 

1. For further information and interviews, please contact Beverley Cohen in The King's Fund media and public affairs office on 020 7307 2632 or Michael Moruzzi on 020 7307 2585.

2. For further information from the Health Development Agency please contact James Thomson or Sophie Davison on 020 7061 3108 / 3125.

3. For The King's Fund response to the government's Choosing Health consultation, please see our website at www.kingsfund.org.uk from Monday 28 June 2004.

4. Public Attitudes to Public Health Policy is a key component of The King's Fund's Putting Health First programme, which is exploring what a wider health 'system' geared towards keeping people healthy – as well as treating them when they are unwell – would look like. A great deal is actually known about the extent and causes of ill health. The programme aims to find the practical mechanisms and levers that will turn ideas into action. Individuals, community organisations, national and local government, as well as public and private institutions, all have a role to play.

5. The Opinion Leader Research survey was conducted in three stages. Stage one and two consisted of discussion groups representing a broad range of social classes, ages and experience of health services. Stage three consisted of face-to-face interviews conducted with over 1,000 people across the UK to check the earlier findings and explore some issues in more detail. The system used is called syndicated omnibus, it provides a cost effective way of obtaining a rapid response. The data is weighted by gender, ethnicity and social class in proportion to the national population.

6. Opinion Leader Research divided the population into five socio-economic classes. This is an attempt to rank people according to what they do. The classes are A,B,C1,C2, D and E. Class A is the professional class, doctors, lawyers, Class B is the managerial class, Class C1 is office workers in senior positions, Class C2 is office workers in junior positions, Class D is skilled manual workers and Class E is unskilled manual workers.

7. The King's Fund is an independent charitable foundation working for better health, especially in London. We carry out research, policy analysis and development activities, working on our own, in partnerships, and through grants. We are a major resource to people working in health, offering leadership and education courses; seminars and workshops; publications; information and library services; and conference and meeting facilities.

8. The Health Development Agency (www.hda.nhs.uk) is the national authority on what works to improve people's health and to reduce health inequalities. It works in partnership across sectors to gather evidence of what works, advise on standards and to develop the skills of all those working to improve people's health.