Smoking question unlikely to be included in 2021 census

Amanda Lyons

16/08/2019 1:41:51 PM

Professor David Thomas, a tobacco-control researcher who led the submission, is disappointed by the outcome but vows to keep fighting.

Professor David Thomas
Professor David Thomas believes it would be of great value for data collection to include a smoking question in the Australian census.

While it appears his efforts to include a question in the Australian census about whether respondents currently smoke have been unsuccessful, Professor David Thomas, from the Menzies School of Health Research in Darwin, is graceful in defeat.
‘Getting a question into the census is not an easy thing,’ he told newsGP.
‘Everyone has ideas about what questions should be in the census – it’s fiercely fought-over real estate, and we just didn’t win.’
When the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) put out a public consultation in late 2017 on the most useful information to include in an updated census, presenting the first hint of changes to the nationwide survey in many years, Professor Thomas and others in tobacco control felt it was a good opportunity to make their case.
‘There are many other questions [in the census], but none about health,’ he said. ‘We thought it was worthwhile seeing if we could get a smoking question in our next Australian census, just as they do across the ditch in New Zealand.’
Smoking rates are on the decline in Australia, but this should not inspire complacency, Professor Thomas argues, as it is also becoming more concentrated among particular populations.
‘We still see high smoking prevalence amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations; lesbian, gay, bi, transsexual and intersex people; and in some culturally and linguistically diverse populations,’ he explained.
While existing large-scale surveys in Australia, such as the ABS National Health Survey, provide accurate national estimates of smoking prevalence, Professor Thomas has found they tend not to drill far enough into smaller populations with higher smoking rates, either because of these populations’ smaller size or the fact they can be hard to capture.
This is where the broad reach and scope of the census could be extremely helpful for accurate data collection.
‘Obviously, the huge thing that’s different about the census is that close to everyone fills it out,’ he said.
‘For example, other surveys typically exclude people who are homeless or living in boarding houses, and that is often the population where smoking is most common. A census question would get to that finer detail, which would be really useful.
‘We’d be able to have much more accurate data to show whether interventions or campaigns are working – and also target tobacco control intervention at those populations where smoking is still more common, and then see the impact of that targeting, census to census.’
The submission for a smoking census question was supported by a number of health organisations, including the RACGP, the Heart Foundation, the Australian Council of Social Service and the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation.
But Professor Thomas feels the continued importance of such a question can remain shrouded because the issue is so strongly concentrated among more disadvantaged groups.
‘One of the challenges for those of us working in tobacco control is that, amongst more wealthy and advantaged sections of the Australian community, smoking is perceived to be less of a problem,’ he said.
‘In wealthier suburbs, smoking is now getting below 10% and is becoming quite a rare phenomenon, which is absolutely fantastic.
‘But at the same time, many decision-makers who live in those suburbs are not as exposed to the high levels of smoking that still persist in less advantaged parts of the country. So it sometimes does have the potential to drop off the radar.’
While Professor Thomas accepts the question most likely won’t be included in 2021, he is already planning to re-state his case for the next census.
‘Yes, we’ll regroup and come back, of course we will. We’ll try again,’ he said.

‘I think we put up a strong case.’

ABS census smoking smoking cessation

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