Wednesday, November 14, 2007

British Nanny State on the march

Higher alcohol taxes, halting 24-hour drinking, banning smoking in people’s homes and adding fluoride to water supplies are justified intrusions to improve public health, senior academics said yesterday. A report by the well-respected Nuffield Council of Bioethics concludes that the Government and industry are not doing enough to prevent binge drinking or obesity and should promote healthy lifestyles through stricter measures and deterrents.

The authors, a group of doctors, lawyers, philosophers and other experts, argue that the much-maligned “nanny state” should be replaced by a new, more sensitive idea of “stewardship”. Campaigners described the report as a potential manifesto for a bully state and industry groups bristled at the prospect of tighter regulation.

The council, which considers ethical questions raised by advances in medical research, looked at alcohol, obesity, smoking, infectious disease and fluoridation of water. It identified alcohol consumption as a huge public health problem and said that the Government could do more. “Increasing tax on alcohol and restricting hours of sale have been shown to be effective in reducing alcohol consumption,” its report states. “Yet the Government’s alcohol strategy has focused on public information campaigns and voluntary labelling schemes, measures that have been shown not to be effective.”

Lord Krebs, who chaired the report committee, said yesterday: “People often reject the idea of a nanny state but the Government has a duty to look after the health of everyone and sometimes that means guiding or restricting our choices.”

The central concept of stewardship differed from the nanny state by being “more sensitive to the balances between public good and individual freedom,” he said. The report concludes: “The stewardship model provides justification for the UK Government to introduce measures that are more coercive than those which currently feature in the National Alcohol Strategy.”

Lord Krebs said that ministers should revisit the decision to introduce 24-hour licensing laws in 2005. At a briefing yesterday in London, he said: “The Government should implement tougher measures to tackle excessive drinking. There is also an urgent need for an analysis of the effect of extended opening hours on levels of alcohol consumption, as well as on antisocial behaviour.”

He added: “When 24-hour drinking was introduced, it was suggested to create a continental-style cafe culture. If you walk down any of the main streets of Oxford at 11 o’clock — one is known as ‘Vomit Alley’ — we all see a conspicuous absence of continental cafe culture.”

The report, in preparation since February last year, recommends that producers and sellers of alcohol should take more responsibility for preventing harm to health. It also says that the arguments used to justify banning smoking in enclosed public spaces would “also apply to banning smoking in homes”. This would be extremely difficult to enforce, but local authorities and the courts could preside over exceptional cases where children with a respiratory illness could be at such a risk that intervention may be ethically acceptable.

The Nuffield report comes as a coalition of 21 organisations headed by the Royal College of Physicians prepare to form a new Alcohol Health Alliance, which plans to lobby for a 10 per cent rise in alcohol taxes and tighter regulation of the drinks industry. Details of the Alcohol Health Alliance are expected to coincide today with a conference organised by the college on reducing the harm caused by alcohol.

The UK Public Health Association welcomed the report, saying that it represented an evidence-based approach that could counter health inequalities, but Simon Clark, director of the smokers’ lobby group Forest, said: “Politicians should take care not to overindulge in social engineering. Potentially, this report is a manifesto for a bully state in which people are increasingly forced to behave in a manner approved by politicians and evangelical health campaigners who want unprecedented control over our daily lives.”

Jeremy Beadles, from the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, added: “The people clamouring for an increase in taxes and regulation on the drinks industry ignore the fact that alcohol consumption is actually falling. Increasing the cost of alcohol will just hit the vast majority of people who enjoy a drink in moderation.”

Dawn Primarolo, the Health Minister, said that the Government’s strategy to tackle harmful drinking was comprehensive and included an independent review of alcohol pricing.


Brown's 'get fit' towns: Kim Jong-il would be proud

With its new towns that will force people to keep fit, Britain's New Labour is pushing an authoritarian health agenda that will be the envy of tinpot dictators

Gordon Brown's UK government will now try to design urban areas that force us to exercise more - and that's official. To tackle obesity with what he called a `large-scale' approach `across the whole community', Brown's health secretary Alan Johnson has said that he wants to `make physical activity a normal part of everyday life'. (1) So before you go to work, school or your leisure destination, remember that your personal trainer, Alan, has instructed you to walk, run or pedal there.

Johnson's `fit towns', as they have been called, are enough to leave you breathless. Yet although his announcement was picked up by mass media as far afield as China and India (2), it was - like so much of Labour policy - not entirely new. As spiked pointed out nearly six months ago, when Brown announced his plans for five eco-towns, the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) had committed itself to urban growth based on public transport, cycling, walking and a reduced need to travel, `especially by car' (3). Moreover the CLG's July Eco-towns Prospectus registered a desire to `deliver physical and mental health benefits', offer `choices for healthy living', and go about `encouraging healthy behaviours' (4). So what has Johnson added? You could say that he has formally medicalised urban design, annexing it as a Department of Health issue, and you'd be right. But the real novelty of Johnson's innovation is his drive to get us stretching our limbs at Labour's behest.

Barely two weeks ago, Johnson insisted that Britain's potential obesity crisis is one that's on the same scale as the crisis of climate change. That comparison was ridiculous enough (5). Now, he has said that both Labour's eco-towns and other urban areas should be adapted to improve people's health. Through their layout, facilities and construction, eco-towns could also be `healthy towns'. If successful, such an approach `could also apply to areas undergoing housing growth and renewal' (6).

This is a regime for national fitness worthy of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Not for nothing has Johnson claimed a past allegiance to Stalinism (7). In an absolutely illiberal and inhumane manner, Johnson wants urban areas designed so that people's behaviour cannot at all consist of their own freely decided `choices'. Instead, behaviour will be relentlessly controlled by the state. What the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov did to salivating dogs, or the stimulus-response experiments conducted by US psychologist BF Skinner did to hungry rats, Johnson wants to do to us. Johnson's view of human freedom is degraded. The confusions within Labour's urban policy, and the logic of Johnson's approach, make his proposal ludicrous and unworkable. But that should not blind us to his authoritarianism.

For some time now, Labour has crammed what few new houses it has built into the same fenced-in urban areas, so as to keep the masses in their place, protect Britain's rural spaces and lower vehicle emissions as a means of saving the planet. And Labour's brownfield brutalism does not stop there. So ludicrously convinced is Johnson that architectural space really does determine physical slimness, we might expect him to contradict his boss, Gordon Brown, sooner or later.

When Brown first floated the idea of eco-towns, he said that their homes, roads and bus routes should be constructed `in the most environmentally sustainable way' (8). But if obesity is, as Johnson says, on a par with climate change, then dispensing with roads and public transport altogether would be the best way to reduce people's waistlines. And why doesn't Johnson decree that the whole of Britain become a TV-free zone, too? After all, TV supposedly encourages us to be couch potatoes, so giving the National Health Service more fatties to treat.

In the walk-to-work office blocks of Johnson's vision, perhaps there should be no lifts. Lifts would only encourage sloth - especially among slackers who are over 60. And surely doorways should be specially narrow, so as to encourage dietary restraint?

In announcing his intellectual breakthrough, Johnson made much of the flab-fighting successes of cities in Australia, Finland and especially France. Yet in fact Obesogenic Environments: Evidence Review, a highly relevant and recent report commissioned by the Foresight programme of the UK Office of Science and Innovation, makes no mention of either Finland or France. The report records that in Perth, Western Australia, there is evidence that, `after adjustment for confounding factors', being overweight is associated with living on a highway and living on streets with no pavements and with a perceived lack of paths within walking distance. Being obese in Perth is likewise associated with perceived lack of paths within walking distance, poor access to four or more recreational facilities, and with a lack of pavements or shops within walking distance. But that's about it. Indeed with regard to obesity, the report concludes that, `influences of the environment are probably small and mechanisms remain unclear. At present, there is scant evidence on whether the environment might have different effects on people with contrasting levels of physical activity and body weight.' (9)

Clearly Johnson can't be bothered with such a careful analysis. His intent, rather, is simply to stigmatise those who cannot afford to eat well and subject them to a kind of sweaty urban treadmill. The government's attempt to make us live zero-carbon, zero-carbohydrate lifestyles squeezes two ridiculous aims into a failed policy - housing. Recently, Labour has engineered a decline in the number of new homes built in Britain; but its ambitions to police us all through social engineering know no limits. The construction of towns around the tyranny of health is a frightening new departure. Yet we have not heard the last of the Johnson doctrine. Britain's 2012 Olympics doesn't just advertise itself as a low-carbon affair, but insists that it will increase Britons' `awareness' of cycling and walking as healthy means of travel (10). In Labour's camp, no aspect of our public or private lives escapes the government guards - or Alan Johnson, the demented doctor.



Just some problems with the "Obesity" war:

1). It tries to impose behavior change on everybody -- when most of those targeted are not obese and hence have no reason to change their behaviour. It is a form of punishing the innocent and the guilty alike. (It is also typical of Leftist thinking: Scorning the individual and capable of dealing with large groups only).

2). The longevity research all leads to the conclusion that it is people of MIDDLING weight who live longest -- not slim people. So the "epidemic" of obesity is in fact largely an "epidemic" of living longer.

3). It is total calorie intake that makes you fat -- not where you get your calories. Policies that attack only the source of the calories (e.g. "junk food") without addressing total calorie intake are hence pissing into the wind. People involuntarily deprived of their preferred calorie intake from one source are highly likely to seek and find their calories elsewhere.

4). So-called junk food is perfectly nutritious. A big Mac meal comprises meat, bread, salad and potatoes -- which is a mainstream Western diet. If that is bad then we are all in big trouble.

5). Food warriors demonize salt and fat. But we need a daily salt intake to counter salt-loss through perspiration and the research shows that people on salt-restricted diets die SOONER. And Eskimos eat huge amounts of fat with no apparent ill-effects. And the average home-cooked roast dinner has LOTS of fat. Will we ban roast dinners?

6). The foods restricted are often no more calorific than those permitted -- such as milk and fruit-juice drinks.

7). Tendency to weight is mostly genetic and is therefore not readily susceptible to voluntary behaviour change.

8). And when are we going to ban cheese? Cheese is a concentrated calorie bomb and has lots of that wicked animal fat in it too. Wouldn't we all be better off without it? And what about butter and margarine? They are just about pure fat. Surely they should be treated as contraband in kids' lunchboxes! [/sarcasm].

9). And how odd it is that we never hear of the huge American study which showed that women who eat lots of veggies have an INCREASED risk of stomach cancer? So the official recommendation to eat five lots of veggies every day might just be creating lots of cancer for the future! It's as plausible (i.e. not very) as all the other dietary "wisdom" we read about fat etc.

10). And will "this generation of Western children be the first in history to lead shorter lives than their parents did"? This is another anti-fat scare that emanates from a much-cited editorial in a prominent medical journal that said so. Yet this editorial offered no statistical basis for its opinion -- an opinion that flies directly in the face of the available evidence.

Even statistical correlations far stronger than anything found in medical research may disappear if more data is used. A remarkable example from Sociology:
"The modern literature on hate crimes began with a remarkable 1933 book by Arthur Raper titled The Tragedy of Lynching. Raper assembled data on the number of lynchings each year in the South and on the price of an acre’s yield of cotton. He calculated the correla­tion coefficient between the two series at –0.532. In other words, when the economy was doing well, the number of lynchings was lower.... In 2001, Donald Green, Laurence McFalls, and Jennifer Smith published a paper that demolished the alleged connection between economic condi­tions and lynchings in Raper’s data. Raper had the misfortune of stopping his anal­ysis in 1929. After the Great Depression hit, the price of cotton plummeted and economic condi­tions deteriorated, yet lynchings continued to fall. The correlation disappeared altogether when more years of data were added."
So we must be sure to base our conclusions on ALL the data. But in medical research, data selectivity and the "overlooking" of discordant research findings is epidemic.


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