One You: patronising the public

Posted on March 7, 2016

The hardcore fan of the nanny state loves bans, regulations and taxes to enforce the micromanagement of our lives. But such things are politically tricky - it turns out that many voters aren't terribly keen on them. However, the puritans who watch over our health can always turn to other weapons: misinformation and moral blackmail. And these two ugly sisters are on parade in the latest campaign by Public Health England, called 'One You'.

The campaign is targeted at middle-aged people with the aim to get them to quit smoking, watch what they eat, take more exercise and cut back on the booze. The moral blackmail is there in spades when it comes to smoking: 'Your family mean the world to you and secondhand smoke is harmul [sic] to them, especially children. The best way to protect your loved ones is to quit smoking. This will reduce their risk of asthma attacks, ear infections and cancers.' Or to put it another way: 'Quit smoking or your children will be next.' Such threats are overstated and, in any event, there's nothing stopping smokers from opening a window at home or popping out the back door if they have any concerns.

When it comes to misinformation, the campaign also serves as an opportunity to give the new, ludicrously low recommended drinking guidelines an airing. 'It may seem like you don't drink much, but a drink or two most evenings can do harm to your body', we're assured, sidestepping all that awkward criticism of the guidelines, which pointed out that having one or two drinks a day - in fact, even more - is on balance good for you.

Then there's the even more messy topic of food, with the 'One You' website declaring that sugar, fat and salt are all really bad for you. Yet research shows that these things are almost certainly harmless in themselves. The Japanese eat far more salt than Brits and have the highest life expectancy in the world. The French eat more fat than we do, and live longer, too. You can, of course, overdo the calories and pile on the pounds, but we hardly need reminding of that fact.

This is patronising nonsense. Adults are perfectly well aware that our naughty little habits can be bad for us. But the goal of life is not mere longevity - it's about embracing its many pleasures, large and small, too. It's also useless: how many people will make serious long-term changes to their lifestyles based on this guff?

Public Health England will no doubt argue that it is providing valuable information to the public. But such campaigns always come with an agenda. Quite apart from any immediate effect of guilt-tripping us into changing our ways, they become part of the justification for stronger action. 'Oh, we tried just suggesting things and they ignored us', will be the message. Here's our message: just butt out of our lives altogether.