“An epidemic of lifestyle moralism”

Christopher Snowdon on Britain’s hypertrophy of public health [Spiked Online]:

…[“Public health”] 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. …

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. … 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’. … 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.

“Sin” taxes? “Fines for living in a way that displeases a purse-lipped elite.” For persons who are going to live well into old age in any event, the question is not so much “preventing” one eventual cause of death as swapping one for another, perhaps more troublesome cause. And always, always the moralizing:

It can scarcely be coincidence that the main targets of the public-health movement are the same vices of sloth, gluttony, smoking and drinking that have preoccupied moralists, evangelists and puritans since time immemorial. HL Mencken long ago described public health as ‘the corruption of medicine by morality’.

Whole thing here.


  • It’s really interesting to read the history of Prohibition and learn that it was heavily supported by the KKK, who were scared at the notion of all those dangerous uncivilized Negroes getting all drunk and rowdy.

  • Density, I’m skeptical of the “KKK caused Prohibition” angle, although it sounds great for a modern audience. The 18th Amendment was enacted before the Klan rose to prominence in the early 1920s. If anything, the leading proponents of temperance were the mainline Protestant denominations that had previously spearheaded the abolitionist movement.

    A more relevant fact is that the anti-German American hysteria that washed over the US during WW I was tapped into by the temperance movement and allowed them to push through Prohibition. Beer was an almost entirely run by the descendants of German immigrants. Obviously, the Busches, Schultzes, and Muellers were just doing the bidding of Kaiser Bill

  • […] [Link fixed.] Wal­ter Olson (who also hosted BR#220) is still alive and kick­ing at Over­lawyered, link­ing to my favorite story of the week (okay, my favorite story other than the Texas Court of Crim­i­nal Appeals’ online-solicitation deci­sion), as well as Secu­rity agen­cies vs. being made fun of, Kansas: state sues sperm donor for child sup­port, and “An epi­demic of lifestyle moral­ism”. […]