‘The Disease of Public Health’ – is an excellent article in Spiked, by Chris Snowdon published in 2013.
It still applies.
In fact, it is even MORE applicable in 2017.
As the definition of ‘health’ has been changed, so too has the meaning of ‘public health’. It once meant vaccinations, sanitation and education. It was ‘public’ only in the sense that it protected people from contagious diseases carried by others. Today, it means protecting people from themselves. The word ‘epidemic’ has also been divorced from its meaning – an outbreak of infectious disease – and is instead used to describe endemic behaviour such as drinking, or non-contagious diseases such as cancer, or physical conditions such as obesity which are neither diseases nor activities. This switch from literal meanings to poetic metaphors helps to maintain the conceit that governments have the same rights and responsibility to police the habits of its citizens as they do to ensure that drinking water is uncontaminated. It masks the hard reality that ‘public health’ is increasingly concerned with regulating private behaviour or private property.
The anti-smoking campaign is where the severe new public-health crusade began, but it is not where it ends. Libertarians warned that the campaign against tobacco would morph into an anti-booze and anti-fat campaign of similar intensity. They were derided; ridiculed for making fallacious ‘slippery slope’ arguments. In retrospect, their greatest failing was not that they were too hysterical in their warnings but that they lacked the imagination to foresee policies as absurd as plain packaging or bans on large servings of lemonade, even as satire.
The slippery slope was both predictable and predicted. The only surprise is how little time it took for the British public to taken in, when only a few years earlier they would have scoffed at the idea of drinkers and salad-dodgers being next in line. Once again, all it took was a change in terminology. A ‘binge-drinker’ had traditionally been someone who went on a session lasting several days. Now it means anyone who consumes more than three drinks in an evening. Similarly, the crude and arbitrary nineteenth century measure of body mass index (BMI) has been used to categorise the chubby as ‘obese’ and the fat as ‘morbidly obese’. Sugar is ‘addictive’ now – and ‘toxic’. ‘Big Food’ is the new ‘Big Tobacco’. The anti-smoking blueprint of advertising bans, tax rises and ‘denormalisation’ provides the roadmap for action. At this stage, there is nothing to be gained from saying we told you this would happen, but we told you this would happen.
Today, if you are gripped by an urge to eradicate some bad habit or other, you no longer have to make a nuisance of yourself knocking door-to-door or waving a placard in some dismal town square. You can instead find yourself a job in the vast network of publicly funded health groups and transform yourself from crank to ‘advocate’.
No wonder, then, that everything – from gambling and climate change to gay-rights and international finance – is now pitched as a ‘public health issue’. No wonder, also, that a swarm of political activists and belligerent academics have transformed themselves into ‘public health professionals’ as a way to win power without winning votes. Although ‘public health’ is still popularly viewed as a wing of the medical profession, its enormous funding and prestige has attracted countless individuals whose lack of medical qualifications is compensated by their thirst for social change. The movement is dominated by sociologists, engineers, psychologists, lawyers, epidemiologists and other academics whose contempt for consumer capitalism is often more conspicuous than their concern for people’s health and wellbeing. Whether it is attacking multinational corporations or campaigning against ‘health inequalities’ (which are invariably a proxy for income inequalities), the endlessly accommodating field of ‘public health’ is a magnet for unelectable social scientists and moral entrepreneurs.
Do read the whole article of which there is much more thought provoking stuff – and the comments at the end.
I am archiving it here for my own interest. It’s a reason why I feel I’m living on an alien planet.