A really bad habit

Where do UK public health campaigns get off, telling us how disgusting we are?

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

Isn’t it strange that a culture obsessed with boosting our self-esteem puts so much time and energy into public information campaigns telling us how thoroughly disgusting we are?

In February 2004, the British Heart Foundation released controversial and repulsive adverts showing cigarettes dripping with fat, to symbolise the extent to which smoking clogs up people’s arteries (some scientists objected that this presentation was not exactly accurate but hey, never let the facts get in the way of a good scare) (1). Now the World Cancer Research Fund has released a series of ads picturing a bloke’s fat arse beneath the caption ‘Don’t look like the back end of a bus’, to be plastered – cunningly enough – on the back ends of buses (2).

Now that overeating has become the new smoking, the scope for official campaigns to try to shame us into behaving in what they think is a civilised manner has widened considerably: and the ad-men seem to be relishing it. What more effective way to trouble our evening’s relaxation than to intersperse between reality TV shows images showing just how sick, smelly and lardy we could look if we carry on behaving in the way that we do? And that’s before they try to get into your nightmares, with the THINK! campaign’s ever-more grisly images of innocent children being run over by people callously driving at five miles per hour above the speed limit.

The adjectives always used to describe these campaigns are ‘hard-hitting’ and ‘shocking’. So the World Cancer Research Fund said that its aim was to shock people into thinking about diet and exercise – and not just the fat ones either. ‘People who aren’t yet overweight also need to take notice’, the charity’s adviser Professor Martin Wiseman said (note the grim placing of the word ‘yet’) (3). But since when was it the role of the public health authorities to practice mass aversion-therapy, pushing people to loathe themselves? Are there no positive, constructive messages that could be promoted instead?

Well, Britain’s chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, has had a go. As part of the health secretary’s much-publicised national consultation on tackling obesity and sexually transmitted diseases, the CMO has produced a personal ‘Ten Tips For Better Health’ (4). Isn’t it strange that a culture that is so obsessed with celebrating diversity can produce such a detailed prescription of individual health perfection?

The CMO’s Ten Tips run from the predictable to the preposterous to the ridiculous. ‘Don‘t smoke and don’t breathe others’ tobacco smoke’, instructs Number One – clearly careful not to exclude non-smokers, who still make the mistake of going to pubs and breathing. ‘If you drink alcohol, have no more than 2-3 units a day (women) or 3-4 units a day (men)’, says Number Five – for those who still think that staying sober in pubs is not always the point. ‘Practise safer sex – use a condom’ admonishes Number Seven, for those who think that sex education stopped once you leave school. ‘Protect yourself from the sun – cover up, keep in the shade, never burn and use factor 15 plus sunscreen. Take extra care to protect children’, states Number Six, for those who think sex on the beach is a waste of valuable tanning time.

When it comes to eating, Housemaster Donaldson really gets into his stride. Tip Number Two is: ‘Eat at least five portions of fruit and veg each day and cut down on fat, salt and added sugar.’ To be fair, he is only reiterating the orders of the government’s ‘Five-A-Day’ campaign, which produces posters and leaflets helpfully spelling out exactly what constitutes five portions of fruit and veg a day: ‘One cereal bowl of mixed salad; two halves of canned peaches; three heaped tablespoons of peas; 16 okra’, and so on (5). You wouldn’t want these people round to dinner – they’d probably bring their tape measures. Of course, as well as the five-a-day target, the CMO also sets a target for exercise (3 – Be physically active for at least 30 minutes, 5 days a week) and, of course, a target for weight (4 – Maintain, or aim for, a healthy weight (BMI 20-25)).’

Having exhausted the familiar eating/drinking/sunbathing stuff, the CMO offers a helping hand to other, less glamorous government-backed campaigns. ‘On the roads, THINK safety’, he says – avoiding sudden accidental death being, admittedly, a good health tip, albeit rather an unnecessary one. ‘Make the decision to go for cancer screening when invited’, recommends Number Eight. The health secretary’s consultation is called ‘Choosing health?’ – apart from the implication that some strange masochistic types might actively choose ill-health, it’s pretty clear that the Conversation won’t hesitate to remind us what our choices should be.

After stressing us out by going through this entire list of what we’ve done wrong in our daily lives, point Number Ten is ‘Manage stress levels – talking things through, relaxation and physical activity can help’. Provided that we’re talking about the right things, and not doing it over a pint of lager and a packet of crisps in our local.

The breezy, low-key character of this official lifestyle guide indicates that the government does not think there is anything unusual or wrong with producing propaganda like this. The fact that similarly bossy lifestyle advice is hurled at us on a daily basis from any number of agencies means that we are no longer shocked by it ourselves. But taking a step back (that’s at least five seconds’ worth of physical activity), and leaving aside the small matter that people live longer, healthier lives than ever before, there is something quite extraordinary about the message that this culture of healthism transmits to its audience.

Apparently we are dirty people with disgusting personal habits, who need to be treated like irresponsible children and turned into lifestyle automatons by the authorities-that-be. Maybe they’d prefer it if we put a collective end to ourselves, reducing any possibility of becoming a burden on the NHS, or an uncomfortable reminder of life and liberty in an antiseptic society that sees its citizens as germs.

(1) Anti-smoking ads ‘a huge success’, BBC News, 2 February 2004

(2) Buses warn about big ‘back ends’, BBC News, 8 March 2004

(3) Buses warn about big ‘back ends’, BBC News, 8 March 2004

(4) The Chief Medical Officer’s Ten Tips For Better Health, UK Department of Health

(5) 5-a-day poster and leaflet, UK Department of Health

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Topics Politics


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