Using the tobacco fear to police our lives

Sugar, food, sunshine, sitting down – everything fun is now labelled 'the new tobacco'.

For the past 50 years, the public-health movement has been bashing away at smokers. It’s a filthy, dirty habit and it should be stamped out, they say. Through labels, taxes, lectures and bans, the hoped for ‘end game’ for tobacco seems closer than ever. The self-righteous prohibitionists not only want to inform us of the health risks of the evil weed, but through nudging, cajoling and even outright legal force, they want to stop us from smoking altogether. They know what is good for us, even if we don’t.

But the ambitions of these health wonks – and the politicians who support them – are not restricted to the humble cigarette. No, having figured out how to batter smokers into near submission, they want to apply the same playbook to almost any other form of enjoyment. The quest is on for ‘the new tobacco’. And the candidates are piling up.

The current frontrunner is sugar. Earlier this year, the media gleefully reported on a new campaign – Action on Sugar – which aimed to persuade the food industry to cut down on added sugar and demanded taxes on sugary drinks. ‘SUGAR IS “THE NEW TOBACCO”’, declared the Daily Mail’s front page, quoting a public-health researcher, Professor Simon Capewell. A particularly woeful edition of Channel 4’s current-affairs show, Dispatches, swiftly followed, offering a platform for the anti-sugar crusaders while less-than-subtly implying that those officially charged with providing recommendations for our sugar intake had been bought off by the food industry. The producer of Al Gore’s climate-change polemic, An Inconvenient Truth, Laurie David, has just brought out a new film, Fed Up, repeating the same story of a giant industry – Big Food – killing millions by foisting a deadly product – sugary food – on unsuspecting consumers.

But why stop at sugar? Yesterday, two ‘international groups’ (so important that their existence had previously slipped the world’s attention) received plenty of coverage for demanding that food in general be governed by the same kind of international agreements and local laws currently applied to tobacco. Luke Upchurch at Consumers International told BBC News: ‘We want to avoid a situation like the 1960s, where the tobacco industry [was] saying there is nothing wrong with cigarettes, they are good for our health, and 30 or 40 years later millions have died. If we don’t take action now, we are going to have the same intransigence and foot-dragging in the food industry.’

The ideal candidate for being the ‘new tobacco’ is something common and popular, but apparently deadly, produced by evil fat cats more interested in the bottom line than the lethal effects of their products. Such a narrative combines fears about personal health with conspiracy theories about a world controlled by unseen and unaccountable forces, all blended with a teenage anti-capitalism and a crusading zeal.

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Yet the epithet of ‘the new tobacco’ is being applied to lots of other apparent threats to our wellbeing, too. Dr Phil Hammond, writing in the Daily Telegraph yesterday, claimed: ‘For many doctors, sunshine has become the new tobacco.’ This despite the fact that vitamin-D deficiency – caused by a lack of exposure to sunlight – is a rising problem today.

Some of the other claims about ‘the new tobacco’ seem, well, bonkers. In January last year, Huffington Post asked: ‘Smoking vs Sitting: Which Is Worse?’ By July, Runners’ World was warning: ‘All the time we spend parked behind a steering wheel, slumped over a keyboard, or kicked back in front of the tube is linked to increased risks of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and even depression – to the point where experts have labeled this modern-day health epidemic the “sitting disease”.’ In 2011, an article in the Journal of Public Health asked, ‘Are cars the new tobacco?’, suggesting that more needs to be done to restrict driving.

A quick Google search brings up a host of other jostlers for the position of ‘the new tobacco’, including meat, Big Food, tanning salons, alcohol, stress, coal, cellphone and wireless radiation, soda, dairy products, pornography, and confectionery. (I gave up after the first 20 pages of results – ‘the new tobacco’ brought back almost two million results.)

So, there you have it. Tobacco, the king of public-health scares, has spawned a cottage industry of copycat panics about just about everything under the sun (plus the sun itself). But we don’t live in a particularly deadly era – we live longer, healthier lives than ever. What these promiscuous comparisons with tobacco show is just how fearful we have become of even the most trivial health or environmental threat, with academics, campaigners and politicians all willing to play on that fear to further their own ends.

Rob Lyons is associate editor at spiked.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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