Has preventative health care become code for paternalism?

‘The Taskforce says that prevention is everyone’s business – and we call on the state, territory and local governments, on non-government and peak organisations, health professionals and practitioners, communities, families and on individuals to contribute towards making Australia the healthiest country by 2020.’ (Extract from ‘Taking Preventative Action’, the federal government’s response to the Report of the National Preventative Health Taskforce).

I find the sentiments in the quoted passage objectionable for two reasons. First, preventative health care is not ‘everyone’s business’. Individual adults have primary responsibility for their own preventative health care because no-one is better able to exercise that responsibility than they are. Individuals who are persuaded that preventative health care is a collective responsibility could be expected to look increasingly to the various levels of government, non-government organisations, health professionals and practitioners, communities and families – everyone except themselves – to accept responsibility for what they eat, drink and inhale.

Second, the goal of making Australia the healthiest country by 2020 is being put forward as though it is self-evidently desirable collective good that should be pursued by any and every means available to everyone. The goal is not self-evidently desirable. Individual health is not a collective good. And the end does not justify the means that are being proposed to pursue it.

If you delve behind the spin about making Australia the healthiest country by 2020, the underlying goal seems to be to raise average life expectancy in Australia to the highest level in the world by reducing the incidence of chronic disease. What does this entail? It would be hard to object to the goal of enabling individual Australians to reduce their risk of chronic disease. The problem is that the government’s strategy is more about achieving national goals than providing better opportunities for individuals – more about behaviour modification than about ‘enabling’ individuals to reduce their health risks.

The government claims that analysis of ‘the drivers of preventable chronic disease demonstrates that a small number of modifiable risk factors are responsible for the greatest share of the burden’. The behavioural risk factors led by obesity, tobacco and alcohol apparently account for nearly one-third of Australia’s total burden of disease and injury. The chronic conditions for which some of these factors are implicated include heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, arthritis, osteoporosis, lung cancer, colorectal cancer, depression and oral health problems.

Since these risk factors stem from individual lifestyles it is obviously desirable for individuals to be aware of them. There may be a role for governments in provision of this information. Perhaps governments should also be involved in helping people in various ways to live more healthy lifestyles. It is questionable how far governments should go down this path, but it is difficult to object to modest efforts by governments to improve opportunities for people to live healthier lifestyles.

However, rather than helping people to help themselves the federal government has chosen the path of Skinnerian behaviour modification. It has chosen to drive changes in behaviour through what it describes as the ‘world’s strongest tobacco crackdown’. (This is one instance when I hope the government doesn’t actually mean what it says – some people in Bhutan have apparently been jailed recently for possession of more than small amounts of tobacco products.) The government’s strategy also involves ‘changing the culture of binge drinking’ and ‘tackling obesity’, but in this post I will focus on smoking.

Some of the tactics being used in the tobacco crackdown involve information and persuasion but there is also an element of punishment involved. The tobacco excise has been increased to over $10 for a packet of 30 cigarettes and legislation is proposed to require cigarettes to be sold in plain packaging. It seems to me that this amounts to persecution of smokers and their families. It will reduce the amount of household budgets available to be spent on other products and encourage some to avoid excise by obtaining tobacco from illegal sources.

As a former smoker, I am probably more strongly against smoking than most people who have never smoked. I encourage other people to quit smoking and discourage young people from taking up the habit. But having given up smoking several times, I know how hard this can be. Governments have no basis on which to judge that people are not in their right mind if they consider that the pleasures they might obtain from additional years of life are not worth the pain of giving up smoking.

In my view this question of whether smokers are capable of judging what is in their own best interests is at the crux of the matter. The politicians and bureaucrats who seek to modify the behaviour of smokers may see themselves as enhancing the capability of these people to have lives that they ‘have reason to value’, in accordance with well-being criteria proposed by Amartya Sen. If so, their attitudes highlight a major problem with Sen’s approach. Governments have no business deciding what kinds of lives individuals have reason to value.

Enrolling into a drug rehab program can be the hardest thing to do but it can save a life.

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