(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 15.)
New Zealanders are under siege, bombarded almost weekly with warnings that we’re killing ourselves, either by drinking too much, eating the wrong food or being too fond of sugar.Last week a coterie of academics from Otago, Auckland and Oxford universities called for special taxes on fatty and salty foods and government subsidies on fruit and vegetables.
Luckily for them, they wouldn’t have to work out the nightmarish regulatory details such a proposal would entail, nor pay for the army of public servants that would be required to administer it. Not their problem.A couple of weeks earlier, at a conference in Wellington, the head of preventive and social medicine at Otago University, who also happens to be a campaigner for stringent liquor controls, recited a slew of scary statistics linking alcohol consumption with cancer.
Professor Jennie Connor said that for women, cancer was the most common fatal consequence of drinking, accounting for 44 per cent of all alcohol-related deaths. In 2007, according to her figures, 243 cancer deaths were attributed to drinking.And just to frighten people more, she said that about one-third of alcohol-related cancer deaths occurred among women who had fewer than two drinks a day.
In other words, forget all that reassuring stuff about drinking in moderation. There’s no “safe” level of consumption.Now I admit I’m just a dumb layman, but loose phrases such as “attributed to drinking” and “related to drinking” arouse my journalist’s scepticism. They seem to fall short of a definitive statement that these women got cancer and died specifically as a result of drinking.
Besides, I wondered how doctors could be so sure that it was alcohol that caused these fatal cancers and not some other factor – or, more likely, combination of factors. How can they so confidently rule out genes, for example, or general diet and lifestyle?And why don’t academic researchers also mention, just to prove they’re not ideologically biased, that many people drink in moderation throughout their lives and are still healthy in their 80s and 90s? That might present a slightly more balanced picture.
It would help, too, if the journalists reporting alarmist statements about diet and alcohol were a little less credulous. But we’re conditioned to defer to people with titles like “professor” and to assume they speak with Olympian authority and strict scientific neutrality. Their statements are generally reported unquestioningly.Attempts by public health “experts” to scare us into changing our behaviour, and to bludgeon politicians into passing restrictive laws, bear a striking similarity to the moral crusade waged by prohibitionists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Many of those earlier crusaders were driven by religious convictions, but it’s not religion that motivates today’s academics. There may be a quasi-religious intensity in the way they push their message, but their motives are more ideological than spiritual.I suspect they have a vision of a perfect society, one that would be achievable if only people knew what was good for them. But ordinary people are greedy, stupid and blind to reason, so other solutions must be found – coercion by legislation, for example, and dissuasion from bad habits through the introduction of higher taxes on products like liquor, sugar and fatty foods, or restrictions on marketing, purchasing age and trading hours.
And their ideal of a Utopian society doesn’t always involve denying people things. It can also mean giving them something, whether they ask for it or not.In one of the more extreme ideas to emerge from Dunedin-based academics, it was recently proposed that all teenage girls should be fitted with contraceptive implants or intra-uterine contraceptive devices (IUDs) before they become sexually active.
The purpose, its backers say, would be to reduce teenage pregnancy rates. But according to a study by another university, Waikato, these are coming down anyway, and have been since 2008.Under the proposal, girls would automatically be given long-term contraceptives unless they chose to opt out – “in the same way as children are vaccinated,” as one of the idea’s backers helpfully put it. He didn’t say at what age he thought this should happen: 12, perhaps? 13?
This is a form of social control that reads like something out of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World. It would be another step in the creeping intrusion of the state into areas of life where people have traditionally made their own decisions.The idea also has a moral dimension in that it suggests the liberated ideals of the swinging sixties are alive and well in the universities. By assuming that it’s normal for girls to become sexually active while young, it would effectively encourage them to do so. Liberals are very good at ignoring the damage done by the sexual revolution.
It’s tempting to dismiss the backers of such ideas as control freaks, but perhaps we should give them the benefit of the doubt and assume their intentions are good.My problem with such people is twofold. First, they believe that the perfect society is attainable only through the intervention of the state, and that this justifies laws that impinge heavily on individual choice. And second (which is closely related), they have no trust in the wisdom of ordinary people. They seem incapable of accepting that most of us are capable of behaving sensibly and in our own best interests without coercion or interference by governments and bureaucrats.