Food, drink, drugs and holidays

A round-up of January's health scares, lifestyle panics and other blown-up fears.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Killjoys kicked off 2002 as they mean to go on – warning us not to eat, drink, party, dance or holiday too hard.

It started with food. On 3 January 2002, UK nutritionists and psychologists set up the gut-busting charity Weight Concern, to ‘increase public understanding of the causes and consequences of obesity’ (1). Apparently, the UK is the fattest nation in Europe, with one in two of us overweight and one in five of us obese. ‘Fat is a capitalist issue’, declared Observer columnist Will Hutton, warning that ‘we are becoming obese – and those layers of blubber don’t just make it unpleasant to live with or impact on job prospects. They can be a killer’ (2).

OBESITY may well be on the rise, but the statistics (that’s numbers, not waistlines) are blown up by the broadening definition of what it means to be ‘overweight’. What might once have been considered ‘plump’ is now being lumped together with ‘fat’, while what might once have been considered ‘fat’ is increasingly being labelled ‘obese’. Weight Concern uses a Body Mass Index calculator, taking your height and weight to judge whether you’re carrying too much flab – and unless you’re a perfect, weight-watching citizen in healthy New Britain you’re unlikely to make it into the ‘desirable weight’ category, instead landing in the ‘unhealthy’ overweight categories. Try it (see the Body Mass Index calculator).

This looks like another case of the ‘medicalisation’ of everyday life (3), where health zealots claim (without much proof) that there’s a link between weight and health – extending the influence of health professionals from the sick to the well. Weight Concern’s Professor Peter Kopelman gave the game away when he claimed that ‘the establishment of this charity provides an opportunity to improve the health and wellbeing of many in our society’ (4). So whether you’re thin, plump, fat, fatter or obese, expect more lectures on what you should (and shouldn’t) eat.

After food came DRINK. ‘Primary school children turn to drink’ screamed the headlines on 6 January 2002, as a survey of 13,000 children across the UK by the Schools Health Education Unit found that one in six 11-year-olds has a ‘weekly drink’ (5). But before we had time to conjure up images of reckless, irresponsible kids too pissed to attend lessons and puking on the number 32 home, anti-alcohol charities reminded us that The Parents Are To Blame. One commentator claimed that ‘alcoholism begins at home’, while a spokeswoman for Alcohol Concern said, ‘At the end of the day, parents are crucial as role models for their children’ and so must have a ‘sensible attitude’ to booze (6).

Of course schoolkids aren’t hitting the bottle. The shock horror survey found that 62 percent of 10- to 11-year-olds had tasted wine at least once, that 58 percent had tried beer at least once, and that 35 percent had tried spirits at least once – revealing two things: 1) children lie, sometimes making claims about sex, booze and drugs that aren’t always the whole truth and nothing but the truth; 2) children sometimes taste alcohol, hardly the most shocking revelation of the new millennium.

And what about those Bad Parents who ply their children with beer? Most of these cases were kids who had the occasional half glass of wine or bottle of beer at home, usually during a family meal – which far from being a threat to children’s wellbeing/the nation’s moral fibre/the education system is a perfectly sensible way of introducing young people to alcohol without all the fuss. Just as my dad introduced me to a pint of Guinness when I was 11, which had the positive effect of turning me off the black stuff forever. Those parents should be given a drink, not a snotty-nosed talking-to.

What alcohol scare would be complete without a DRUGS scare to go with it? January was the month the newspapers revealed that Prince Harry had tried cannabis and was hauled around a drug rehabilitation centre to gawk at heroin addicts by his father as punishment (though surely Charles’ promise to ‘spend more time’ with his son was punishment enough?). As one report reminded us, ‘The revelations about Prince Harry expose a problem which is blighting society, from the well-heeled children of the upper class [that’s Harry and co] through to youngsters who live on the most deprived estates [the ones with the alcoholic parents]….the twin problems of drug and alcohol abuse’ (7). And this month’s drug of choice for the panicmongers? Ecstasy.

‘Ecstasy deaths hit new record’ screamed the front page of the UK Daily Express in mid-January, claiming that ‘ecstasy deaths have risen by two-thirds in 12 months’ (8). Mixmag, the trendy dance magazine for way-out clubbers everywhere and not previously noted as an authority on health matters, unveiled a survey finding that one in four clubbers ‘has mental health problems’ (9) – which made the headlines, got cited by a Tory of the non-clubbing variety on BBC’s Question Time, and moved one clubber to claim ‘I dunno what I’m doing to my head’.

In reality, there is no scientific proof that taking E causes mental health problems. The clubbers surveyed by Mixmag claimed to experience things like anxiety, insomnia, poor concentration, low self-esteem – hardly mental illnesses, but possibly the results of getting off your trolley until five in the morning on a regular basis (just a thought). As for the trebling of Ecstasy deaths – the Daily Express and friends forgot to mention that death by E is extremely rare (27 in the year 2000) and not always attributable to the drug itself. Some ‘Ecstasy deaths’ are the probable result of overheating, dehydration or over-consumption of water.

As one study argues, where tobacco kills about 0.9 percent of its users a year and alcohol kills about 0.5 percent of its users a year, Ecstasy (allegedly) kills about 0.0002 percent of its users a year. A report for The Economist claims that ‘a motorbike journey is three times as likely to kill you as taking a tablet of street Ecstasy and – astonishingly – flying on a civil airliner is one-and-a-half times as dangerous as dropping an E’ (10). E might not be your cup of tea, but it’s relatively safe to pop.

It’s not just food, booze, drugs and clubbing that can damage your physical, mental and social wellbeing – so can HOLIDAYS. Allegedly.

On 9 January, UK chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson claimed that Britain is under attack from ‘rare and potentially fatal tropical diseases’ – as a result of so many Britons travelling abroad and bringing back more than tacky souvenirs, and rising levels of immigration from Asia and Africa (why pass over an opportunity to knock asylum seekers?). Newspaper reports were quick to run horror stories about outbreaks of TB, malaria, ebola and even West Nile fever, and reminders that ’70,000 people die from infectious diseases in England each year’ (11).

In the real world, the 70,000 who die from infectious diseases die from ‘everyday infections’, overwhelmingly pneumonia (about 57,000 deaths in England and Wales in the year 2000, the majority among over-75s). Influenza causes about 500 deaths (again the majority among over-75s); then there are rarer infections like menigococcal infection (207 deaths in 2000) and HIV (182 deaths in 2000). In 2000, there were 367 deaths from TB (mostly among over-65s), 18 deaths from malaria, and none from ebola, West Nile fever or any of the other extravagant infections that made the headlines (12).

And, as the chief medical officer’s report pointed out, even deaths from ‘everyday infections’ have fallen dramatically over the past 100 years. So in 1901, the death rate from infectious disease in the UK was 369 per 100,000 of the population – in 2000 it was nine per 100,000. In 1949, 290 children died from measles – in 2000 one child died. In 1919, 228,000 people died in a British epidemic of influenza – in 2000, 549 mostly elderly people died from influenza (13). And so on. But then, ‘Weird fevers invade Britain’ is a far more catchy headline than ‘We’re less likely to die from infection than ever thanks very much’.

After a month of scares, my favourite news story came on the last day of January, following the publication of the new UK Social Trends report. Of course, predictable bits made the headlines – ‘Immigration will push UK population rise to 66million’ (there’s that pop at asylum seekers again), and ‘Numbers killed in alcohol-related car crashes have shown sharp rises in recent years’ (14) (though the number of UK road accidents has fallen from 246,000 in 1975 to 235,000 in 2000, despite there being twice as much traffic today; and the number of deaths caused by drink-driving has fallen from 1640 to 460 in the 20-year period 1979 to 1999) (15).

Go behind the headlines and you find that – thanks to medical developments and rising incomes – boys born now can expect to live to 75 and girls can expect to live to 80, while Social Trends predicts that life expectancy will rise by a further two years by 2021. In short, we live longer, healthier and wealthier lives – so don’t panic.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Don’t Panic Button

(1) Charity to help overweight, BBC Online, 3 January 2002

(2) Fat is a capitalist issue, Will Hutton, Observer, 27 January 2002

(3) See The Tyranny of Health: doctors and the regulation of lifestyle, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, Routledge 2000. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(4) Charity to help overweight, BBC Online, 3 January 2002

(5) Primary school children turn to drink, Guardian, 6 January 2002

(6) Primary school children turn to drink, Guardian, 6 January 2002

(7) Twin hazards of binge drinking and cannabis, Guardian, 14 January 2002

(8) Daily Express, 23 January 2002 linkable text

(9) Clubbers’ mental health risk, BBC Online, 14 January 2002

(10) ‘Shopping for a drugs policy’, The Economist, 14 August 1997

(11) UK ‘faces tropical disease threat’, BBC Online, 10 January 2002

(12) ‘Death registrations 2000: cause, England and Wales’ (.pdf), Health Statistics Quarterly, Summer 2001

(13) UK Department of Health Strategy for Combating Infectious Disease (.pdf), January 2002

(14) Heterosexual HIV infection rises, Guardian, 31 January 2002

(15) Road Accidents Great Britain 2000 (.pdf), Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, September 2001

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Topics Politics


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