Thursday 8 October 2009

Alcohol - the new tobacco

[More political ramblings to follow but while I drive my van from Yorkshire to Brighton, here's something I wrote a few weeks ago and never got round to posting]

Ian Dunt at has written
a fine article which echoes one of the themes of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist - that the war on tobacco is a precursor to the war on other 'vices'.

And so it begins. The British Medical Association (BMA) is calling for Britain to become the first country to ban alcohol advertising, sponsorship and promotions. We know it won't end there. This line of attack was the first front in the war against smoking, and it appears alcohol is now in the health lobby's sights.

Indeed. I'm sure the reader does not need to be reminded that the campaign against cigarettes began with an advertising ban.

As an organisation, the BMA only comprehends the world through the prism of physical harm. Harm is bad. Non-harm is good. Nothing else fits in the equation. Unfortunately for them - but fortunately for us - there's so much more to life than that.

Many things which cause harm are a fundamental part of a life worth living. Sex, for a start, has killed more humans throughout history than we could count, through sexually transmitted diseases, the act of giving birth and jealous husbands, to name but three.

Cigarettes are the same. They kill millions. But there is a certain beauty to the sensual, subtle – almost mystical – nature of smoking which isn't negated just because it is dangerous or addictive. Any rigorous exercise or extreme sport has killed humans in their thousands. On the other end of the scale, bacon butties - possibly the greatest invention in the history of man - will invariably end you if you enjoy them too often. Sometimes it's worth giving up some safety for a little pleasure. It is risk and excitement and uncertainty that make life worth living.

This is a value judgement, of course, but it is one that Ian Dunt is free to make as a sentient adult human being. We all make such judgements. For the individual, life is made up of many parts - wealth, health, sex, love, music, sport, food and so on - of which health is but one. The British Medical Association is naturally preoccupied with health. This is hardly surprising, and is as it should be. Equally, economists are preoccupied with wealth, the Football Association is preoccupied with sport and Cosmopolitan magazine is preoccupied with sex.

Every important aspect of our lives has its experts, advocates and specialists. They are so attached to their own aspect of life that they lose sight of the other priorities people have. They get tunnel vision.

Amongst historians, for instance, it is a running joke that specialists of one period of history will become convinced their era represented the turning point in history (try to find a consensus about when the medieval period really ended, for example). The same is true in real life. Business is accused of focusing too much on money, at the expense of the environment and quality of life. Environmentalists are accused of focusing on pollution and climate change at the expense of development and wealth generation.

'Healthists' (and I hate to use such a clumsy word) can be accused of being preoccupied with health at the expense of pleasure. The problem is compounded by the fact that pleasure cannot easily be quantified. Certainly, it cannot be quantified as easily as longevity, which is what public health statistics so often boil down to. And that, perhaps, is why the health argument wins through so frequently. Statistics are powerful.

Everyone, deep down, understands John Stuart Mill's central tenet of On Liberty; that we cannot take away someone's freedom unless they are oppressing the freedom of someone else.

I will freely admit that I view Mill's famous harm principle as being sacrosanct.
I've written at length about what Mill would have made of the current anti-smoking movement.

Doctors must not become policy makers - any more than the drinks lobby should.

But doctors
have become policy-makers (or, at least, their representatives have - the doctors I know have no will to legislate). And this is the crux of the matter. It is quite valid to have a health lobby and it is quite valid to have a drinks lobby. The problem comes when health is exalted to a supreme status above all other considerations and the "drinks lobby" is treated as a rogue industry. The balance has been lost.

In the real world, health is important and, to many of us, drinks are important too. The individual balances pleasure and risk, savings and expense, time with money, work with play. When the specialist loses sight of this, he risks becoming a myopic extremist.

Mill is famous for expressing the fear that the freedom of the individual was at risk when democracy turned into a tyranny of the majority, but it was Hayek who best expressed the danger posed by the specialist in The Road to Serfdom:

We all think that our personal order of values is not merely personal, but that in a free discussion among rational people we would convince the others that ours is the right one.

The lover of the country-side who wants above all that its traditional appearance should be preserved and that the blots already made by industry on its fair face should be removed, no less than the health enthusiast who wants all the picturesque but insanitary old cottages cleared away, or the motorist who wishes the country cut up by big motor roads, the efficiency fanatic who desires the maximum of specialisation and mechanisation no less than the idealist who for development of personality wants to preserve as many independent craftsmen as possible, all know that their aim can be fully achieved only by planning - and they all want planning for that reason.


Though it is the resentment of the frustrated specialist which gives the demand for planning its strongest impetus, there could hardly be a more unbearable - and more irrational - world than one in which the most eminent specialists in each field were allowed to proceed unchecked with the realisation of their ideals."

The "planning" Hayek refers to is collectivism. Whether you call this planning communism or fascism, only totalitarianism is able to fully meet the needs of the specialist who sees nothing but the bee in his own bonnet.

The various kinds of collectivism, communism, fascism, etc., differ between themselves in the nature of the goal towards which they want to direct the efforts of society. But they all differ from liberalism and individualism in wanting to organise the whole of society and all its resources for this unitary end, and in refusing to recognise automonmous spheres in which the ends of the individuals are supreme. In short, they are totalitarian in the true sense...

A while ago I was interviewed by someone who told me that, as a keen gardener, she hated to see other people not weeding their gardens and that, if she had the power, she would pass a law to force people to do their weeding. What could be wrong with that? On the surface it seems such a small thing. A weeded garden, I suppose, looks better than an unweeded garden. Doing a spot of gardening isn't such a big chore and most people do it anyway. Her point was that she could not bring about this (
to her) great improvement in the nation's gardens as a lone individual. Even if she hooked up with like-minded people, she would only see a moderate change through a campaign of persuasion. Only the state, with all its power, could eradicate this (to her) pressing problem.

We could all name similar minor annoyances which could be eliminated without any great hardship (to us), if only the might of the government was directed towards them. And it is this that gives the state its allure. I have long been of the opinion that most people do not want a smaller state. They are happy with a big state so long as they feel it is on their side and so long as it goes after the people they don't like. This is - to put it mildly - a problem for those who lean towards libertarianism.

But I digress. The drinks industry will continue to assume good faith on the part of those who oppose them. They will make concessions to the health specialists. They will go along with 'voluntary' agreements (which will soon become compulsory). They won't put up much of a fight to the ban on advertising. They will expect the specialists to stop at some point in the near future.

But the specialists won't stop. They see alcohol, quite explicitly, as a Group 1 carcinogen. This puts it in the same class as tobacco. Why, then, would they stop at an advertising ban?

The drinks industry hates to compare itself with the tobacco industry (understandably), but it really does not matter who they compare themselves with. It matters who the specialists are comparing them with.

The knives are out for alcohol, as they are for various types of food. As I argue in Velvet Glove, Iron Fist, the blue-print was drawn up by the anti-smoking lobby. If the drinks lobby took its head out of the sand it would see that its future lies not with a mere ban on broadcast advertising, but in plain packaging, pictures of diseased livers on their labels and under-the-counter sales. And more. We shall see what the next move against smoking is, before we predict the fate of drinkers a decade or more hence.


banned said...

Very well written piece; to the healthists I would repeat what someone elese recently said.
If you could give me a couple of years of extended life as a late teenager or in my early twenties I would willingly make some sacrifices but just to drag out decrepitude I shan't bother thank you very much and where's the sherry ?

Eric Crampton said...

The Brit Medical Association are healthists, but economists aren't necessarily wealthists. We're largely utilitarian: you're the best judge of your utility function, and if you want to trade off leisure for income, that's fine with us. We tend to focus on GDP as a nice measure of "good stuff" as it tends to correlate with most things folks seek, but at the micro level, it's all about utility.

Christopher Snowdon said...

Fair point Crampton, although I think economists - like all specialists - are inclined to overlook other aspects. For example, The Economist is representative of free trade Classical liberals in supporting open borders (in theory I do too). This *might* make sense from an economic point of view but it doesn't take account of the potential social costs of unchecked immigration.

Monetarists and communists alike could be accused of paying insufficient attention to the harm their policies created because they were so fixated on their economic dogma.