Public health and the strange double life of advertising
Johnson apparently rejects the notion that people are able to make sensible choices about their health and lifestyles: “[N]ot everyone is able to defer the instant gratification of that one cigarette or glass of vodka or a meat pie too many in favour of longer term health benefits.”
The health secretary prefers a therapeutic state: “No responsible government can morally justify a retreat to the touchline. To be mere spectators as the waistline of the nation expands, lives get shorter and deprivation intensifies. …Those who cry “nanny state”, at the merest suggestion that we should change our behaviour, trivialise a debate that is critical to the future wellbeing of this country.”
Johnson recounts how, in tackling smoking, “banning advertising, restrictions on the promotion of cigarettes” have been key features of a successful strategy that saved lives. The Health Secretary then goes on to make clear that “milder” forms of government intervention into people’s behaviour, such as campaigns that merely “lecture” them about the dangers of smoking and obesity, are insufficient: “While it’s very easy to point out the pitfalls of smoking, which are now widely understood, advertising cannot promote positive behavioural change on its own.”
So hang on a minute: tobacco advertising makes people smoke and therefore it must be banned, but anti-tobacco advertising cannot be relied upon to deter people from smoking. Advertising seems to lead a double life in Alan Johnson’s world.
In the whole speech, alternatives to government paternalism do not get a single mention. Johnson praises several “innovative” initiatives by Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) who have begun to experiment with financial rewards to promote healthy lifestyle choices. But he omits to mention that outside of the NHS, such financial reward schemes are by now commonplace. Most private health insurers in the UK offer packages including discounts on gym membership, smoking cessation and other preventive actions.
Maybe an altogether more promising approach to public health would be to leave more room for private providers and insurers, and to let them devise their own incentive schemes. But naturally, due to the way Alan Johnson formulates the agenda, this option cannot appear on the radar: “We need to consider whether we’ve done enough, whether our approach is the right one and what further action we need to take.”