Some weeks ago we were regaled with a warning from the World Health Organisation.
The WHO is a worthy body whose proper role is to coordinate the response to international epidemics like SARS or Ebola. This leaves it with a problem commonly found in armed forces in peacetime: how to look busy when there’s no business.
The WHO’s solution to this is effectively to invent epidemics. It picks on some health threat which national governments could easily spot without assistance and issues a global warning. The last but one concerned bacon and other preserved meat dishes like sausages. They were, we were warned, carcinogenic. That is to say consumption of large quantities would increase your chance of getting cancer.
This was greeted in the press with predictable headlines along the lines of “sausages in same category as smoking.”
This is nonsense, of course. It is like saying that because you need a Dangerous Goods Licence to transport diesel fuel then diesel is in the same category as nitroglycerine. This was a predictable error and you have to suspect that the WHO did not try very hard to prevent it, because if you want to look busy then press coverage helps.
On the whole the local medical community was not terribly impressed by the idea of carcinogenic bacon. There are degrees of danger and it seems the danger from this item is quite low. As long as you’re not having smoked meat with every meal you can probably dismiss this one from your list of health worries.
A week or two later came another WHO warning. This one concerned not bacon, but booze.
In other respects it was rather similar. The risk of cancer, even if you were a major consumer, was quite low. Oddly, though, the medical reaction was quite different.
There ensued a press conference by the Hong Kong Medical Association which called for stern measures to reduce consumption of the new carcinogen. Health warnings should be printed on bottles. Punitive taxes should be introduced to curb consumption. And so on. One of the assembled medics made the hilarious suggestion that people who liked beer should try fruit juice or soda water instead.
It is difficult to believe that people can make suggestions about public policy in a state of such complete ignorance. People do not drink beer because they like the fruity taste or the bubbles. They drink it because, in the words of an old Irish drinking song, “it makes me feel content and happy.” This does not happen with fruit juice or soda water because of the absence of alcohol.
I have been opposing the persecution of smokers for many years. This is not because I smoke or because I think smoking is good for you, but because the urge to regulate other people’s pleasures is at least as addictive as smoking and just as dangerous.
The urge seems to be an occupational disease in the medical profession. And when the smokers have been driven to extinction the funhunters will move on to other joys which can be banned, restricted, made expensive, or discouraged in public places.
Drink is a prime target because it is not just consumed, but enjoyed. Health fanatics are like Macaulay’s Puritans who opposed bear baiting not because it gave pain to the bear but because it gave pleasure to the spectators. Bacon is boring. Booze on the other hand is a disreputable pleasure popular with proletarians.
People have been drinking alcoholic drinks for thousands of years. The perils of over-indulgence have been known for nearly as long. It is of course proper if some new danger is discovered that we should be warned of it. It is also desirable that drinkers should be treated to the occasional reminder of the tragic destinations to which chronic wallowing can lead.
What is not desirable is that minor discoveries should be used as a pretext for tightening regulations which many of us find quite acceptable as they are. Well-intentioned recommendations are welcome. Coercion is not.
I also note that something between 50 and 70 per cent of all medical “discoveries” are revealed by further research to be fictitious. So if you want to continue to believe in red wine as the health drink of the 21st century there’s still hope.