How Canadian Legislators View Health Promotion: Does Party Affiliation Matter?

Article excerpt

Legislators are ultimately responsible for enacting policies that bear directly on health promotion in the population. Yet, research into what determines legislators' views of health promotion and their perceptions of the role of government has been limited. One notable exception is a recent American study of the voting intentions of legislators in North Carolina, Texas and Vermont with regard to tobacco control policies.1

In this report, we describe the views of Canadian legislators on selected aspects of health promotion. Given the emphasis on political party that characterizes the Canadian parliamentary system, we also present these perspectives according to political party affiliation.

METHODS

The data were collected as part of the Canadian Legislator Study.2,3 All Canadian federal (n=291) and provincial/territorial (n=741) legislators, serving as of October 1996, were eligible to participate in a structured, computer-assisted telephone interview, conducted in either English or French between July 1996 and June 1997. The overall response rate was 54% (n=553). The response rates for legislators belonging to the Liberal, Progressive Conservative, New Democratic and Reform parties (n = 510) were 58%, 50%, 68% and 75%, respectively. Overall, response rates did not vary by age, sex, educational attainment, or having an academic degree. However, current or former ministers or party leaders, those who were lawyers, and those with longer length of service were less likely to respond (p<0.05). Although the emphasis was on tobacco control" legislators' views on the role of government in health promotion and their support for selected health promotion issues were also addressed.

In this analysis, federal, provincial, and territorial legislators are combined. The findings are presented for all respondents and by political party, where the respondents numbered 40 or more. Chi-square tests were performed to determine if overall differences in the responses of legislators across party affiliations were statistically significant.

RESULTS

A majority of Canadian legislators agreed that government has a major role in promoting healthy lifestyles (Table I). However, legislators affiliated with the New Democratic (NDP) and Liberal parties were much more likely to support a major role for government than were respondents affiliated with the Progressive Conservative (PC) and Reform parties. A converse pattern was found for the view that promoting healthy lifestyles is mostly the responsibility of individuals. Indeed, almost half (48%) of the Reform party legislators supported this position.

Support for the role of government in five specific health promotion domains was also examined. The only health promotion area in which a clear majority of all legislators thought that government should play a major role was discouraging youth from starting to smoke. Less than one third of all legislators saw a major role for government in encouraging physical activity and healthy eating habits.

For each of these domains, a similar and statistically significant pattern of differences across the parties was found. Across the domains, New Democrats were generally most supportive and Reformers least supportive of a major role for government. Liberals tended to be close to the New Democrats in their support, while Progressive Conservatives were considerably less supportive than Liberals.

Legislators also differed statistically across party affiliations in their perceptions of the impact of health promotion programs and policies. New Democrats were most likely to agree that health promotion programs and policies would save money in the long run, and Reformers were least likely to agree that such interventions would change most people's behaviour.

For three other health promotion issues (violence on television, side-impact air bags in cars, and tobacco advertising), legislators were asked about the regulatory role of government versus the role of industry (Table II). …