Commentary | Smoking survey takes sides

Question design is crucial to meaningful results

When I heard that the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) was conducting a survey on a smoke-free campus in January, I was intrigued. The February 11 town hall discussing its results was of even greater interest to me. As a smoker currently working on kicking the habit and whose pet peeves include seeing cigarette butts littering public space, I dream of a hypothetical future where tobacco usage isn’t a thing anymore. Some will agree, some won’t – it’s beside the point, as I would never expect anyone to stop smoking against their will anyway. After all, smoking can be a great stress relief tool and a wonderful accompaniment to a stiff morning coffee.

What irks me is not the push for a smoke-free campus, but the means by which it has been brought about. More precisely, my problem lies with how the survey used to probe public opinion was designed. It may seem inconsequential, but I think that if a measure as drastic as banning smoking on campus grounds is to be taken, we should make sure that the survey data we’re basing this decision on is as unbiased as possible.

The survey in question asked relevant questions, but what strikes me is that it left very little space for dissent and opposition.

It included questions such as “Do you support moving toward a smoke-free campus?” with both the question and the answers worded to make the opposition appear apathetic. You can “strongly support” the measure, but at worst can indicate “I do not support.” This option merely says that you are at best neutral or uninterested, and obfuscates any strong negative feelings you may have regarding the question.

Allowing the full spectrum of opinion, from “I strongly support” to “I strongly oppose” would have made for a fairer survey. This likely would have given results more representative of the range of views of the student population, and maybe the opponents of the initiative would have felt more present in the debate. It appears that this survey was designed to show exactly what those behind the initiative wanted: support for a campus-wide move, rather than the people’s opinion on the matter.

Marc Cataford is the Web editor at The Daily, but the views here are his own. To contact him, email