23 August 2021

First smoking, now alcohol: for the public health zealots there will always be new dragons to slay

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Nobody will be surprised if the World Health Organisation ends up adopting an authoritarian agenda to crack down on alcohol consumption. Indeed, it feels as if the question is much more one of ‘when’ than ‘if’.

Writing for the Institute of Economic Affairs, Christopher Snowdon explains how the WHO, in partnership with a range of pro-temperance organisations, looks set to broaden the remit of its work on drink: “while the 2010 focused on alcohol-related harm, the working document treats mere consumption of alcohol as a problem in itself”. The end result could yet be a ‘Framework Convention on Alcohol Control’, modelled on the existing anti-tobacco treaty.

This story serves once again to highlight what an abysmal mechanism for policymaking the WHO is. 

Let the existing Framework Convention on Tobacco Control serve as an example. Just as marginal temperance organisations seem to have undue influence in shaping WHO policy on alcohol, so are scores of NGOs – but no pro-smoking or industry groups – invited to the meetings that set Convention policy. They thus have a chance to exert huge pressure on national delegations.

Likewise, these meetings invariably vote to exclude the media, conducting their sessions behind closed doors.

The results are then put into force in every member country without national debate. In fact, they are sometimes designed specifically to restrict national governments’ ability to develop an independent agenda – by prohibiting them from even meeting with tobacco companies, for example.

It should come as no surprise that policy formed by such a process is unremittingly authoritarian. One of the virtues of representative democracy is that laws are made by generalists, taking into account different perspectives, priorities, and national conditions. Outsourcing it to a transnational caste of highly-motivated specialists was only ever going to have one outcome.

But even if you agree with the WHO as far as smoking is concerned, there is a second structural flaw in this approach which ought to concern you: all the people involved have a very, very strong motivation to ensure that the crusade never stops.

There will never be a moment when these people stand over the corpse of the tobacco dragon, congratulate each other on a job well done, and convert their swords to ploughshares. Instead, there will always be new dragons to slay: perhaps alcohol, perhaps sugar, probably both. Why would it be otherwise? The current system furnishes these people with well-paid, prestigious jobs, plenty of international travel, and a great deal of power over people’s lives.

Such efforts to fan the public-health ‘forever war’ are greatly assisted by ‘concept creep’: the human tendency to expand our definition of what counts as a problem as the world improves. As medical science advances and industry becomes less dangerous, the leading causes of death and ill health inevitably shift. But when those are tackled, there will still be a ‘leading cause’ – we have to be dying of something – and that, which we might today regard as trivial, will be tomorrow’s great public health crusade. 

Of course, history does not run in a straight line and this machine may on occasion overreach and suffer reverses. The 21st Amendment is a happy rebuke to the idea that the arc of history bends always towards puritanism. Meanwhile the ‘war on drugs’ shows that there are limits to even what the full might of the state can achieve.

But overall, the machinery of prohibition will rumble on, slowly but inexorably shifting our understanding of what is tolerable, and furnishing a moral justification for punitive tax rises when policies such as Net Zero demand additional revenue.

This suggests that drawing lines in the sand, or trying to negotiate a final compromise with the public health lobby, is never going to be a winning strategy for anyone still trying to combat the ‘nanny state’. Instead, they face two very difficult tasks.

First, act decisively to dismantle the architecture that produces these outcomes. Withdraw from the Framework Convention, crack down on state funding for ‘sock puppet’ charities, and restrict the mandate of official public health bodies to issues such as pollution or pandemics. Second, start making the case that a free society cannot be perfectible and that it is legitimate to let some ‘preventable’ illnesses go unprevented.

If that sounds extremely ambitious, it is. But that seems to me the actual task facing anyone in politics who is serious about lifestyle freedom. In the absence of a coherent agenda that allows for proactive action, simply trying to hold the line against this or that once-absurd restriction on personal choice does not work.

The alternative form of resistance, of course, is gangsterism. If the temperance activists advising the WHO do get their way on transnational alcohol policy, you can be sure a new generation of Al Capones will rise to meet them.

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Henry Hill is News Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.