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.