Frontlines: Nanny overboard

Moral cruasaders are peering into every nook and cranny of our lives. Maybe it's time society started to push back against the all-seeing nanny state.

Zeal is a “fervour for a person, cause or object; eager desire or endeavour; enthusiastic diligence; ardour”. It is, on the whole, regarded positively. But add two letters and everything changes. A zealot is “a person who is fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of their religious, political, or other ideals”. Synonyms for zealot include fanatic, enthusiast, extremist, radical, diehard, activist and militant.

This consideration was prompted by a recent conversation with an individual working at a senior level in pharmaceuticals. He mentioned a meeting where a senior official in the Department of Health talked about banning cigarettes in all public spaces as well as any building where there are children, and banning smoking completely for people born after a certain date. The objective, it seems, would be to make Ireland the first smoker-free country in the world.

Now, if this is the kind of thinking that goes on at senior policy levels, we’re in cloud-cuckoo land. One fully supports the intent to reduce smoking – but this is idealistic fantasy divorced from any semblance of reality. It’s fanaticism. It’s zealotry. It is expressive of a kind of faith, not reason.

The name of this faith is public health. As traditional faiths wane they are replaced by new codes of belief and orthodoxies. The impulse to control people’s behaviours, and their pleasures, hasn’t died. It has merely jumped species. The kind of people who would once have become controlling priests, bishops and head nuns now find their niche as public health policymakers, experts and lobbyists.

Like those black-garbed clerics of old, their mantra is that their draconian policies are for your own good. They know better and you are only entitled to the most minimal of freedoms. It’s all rather like the Taliban’s Afghanistan.

The same madness can be seen in alcohol policy in Ireland. My pharma friend also described a high-level conversation between health officials and the alcohol industry. Allegedly, the former told the latter that “We’re not listening to you. Whatever you say will be ignored”.

There you go. Of course, Big Pharma is the biggest industry in the world, with company budgets dwarfing those of many countries, including Ireland.

Observe the moral compromise. While they might see their motives as pure, public health zealots have made common cause with Big Pharma to promote the outlawing of a range of drugs AND to increasingly limit availability of alcohol. They have allied with Big Pharma to attack Big Alcohol – but in so doing have empowered Big Crime.

Historians of the illegal drug trade invariably point to the degree to which the “legit” drugs industry led Governments, and especially in the USA, towards ever greater prohibition and control of psychoactive drugs. Their goal was to corral consumers into their grasp and to cut out the non-industry drugs. Insofar as the legal drugs market expanded enormously, they were successful. But nobody can hide from the fact that, in parallel, the illegal drugs market also expanded on a truly massive scale.

You could say that the net effect of all their efforts is that the illegal drugs market mirrors the legal drugs market in size. Meanwhile, cigarette smoking has bottomed out and we now have a flourishing trade in illegally imported fags. And, of course, gangsters are making huge amounts of money and the Government is getting gypped of tax. It’s Prohibition all over again.

The policies promoted by the zealots have their effects on alcohol too. Ireland’s excise duty on drink is the highest in the world. The taxes have come close to destroying the pub as a social hub. Now pre-drinking is the norm. This, even some of the zealots admit, is a bad thing. Pubs bring a measure of general social control to drinking.

And there’s evidence of displacement: that is, that people are again getting into home-brewing – an honourable tradition – and that an illegal alcohol market is growing.

Earlier this month Donegal coroner John Canon commented on the deaths of two men from “corrupted and debased alcohol”. He said it was either home brew or imported as cheap alcohol. One of the men had “an extremely outrageous” level of methanol in his system.

The argument against the war on drugs goes way beyond its huge cost and ineffectiveness and the taxes lost in its pursuit. It must also comprehend the natural human instinct to experiment and to get a bit out of our heads, especially when young. If people can’t get, or afford, one substance they’re likely to go for another, legal or not.

Last week Professor Luke O’Neill of the School of Biochemistry and Immunology in Trinity College Dublin gave a lecture to the Irish Sceptics Society. He explained that humans have always taken drugs. And he said that these were originally in the form of plants such as marijuana – which was, he said, the first drug ever depicted (on the Ebers papyrus from ancient Egypt). It was used as an anti-inflammatory agent. Then there is a theory that the small medieval stone structures found in many parts of Ireland were sweathouses used in the consumption of magic mushrooms.

And so on.

Let’s be clear. The Hog is not in any sense in favour of smoking. It’s a wretched habit and certainly causes significant health problems later in life. But the notion of criminalising smokers is ridiculous.

As regards psychoactive drugs and alcohol, as is increasingly recognised in other countries (for example the legalisation of cannabis in Colorado), these are broadly benign substances unless consumed to excess or in excessive strength (like skunk). Heroin is, of course, a specific exception. Treat ‘em all the same. Regulate them. Tax them.

Will we get that here? Some chance. Public health policy in Ireland has become so distant from both reason and the real lives that people live. Sadly, that’s what happens when zeal gives way to zealotry. It should not be allowed. But it is very hard to defeat...

 

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