Great news! Governments agree to abolish death!

A deal signed at a world health forum provides a charter for public-health nuts to declare war on our lifestyles.

Christopher Snowdon

Topics Politics

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‘Non-communicable diseases’ is the hot buzzword in public health at the moment. They are the diseases you get if malaria, AIDS, typhoid etc don’t get you first. Thanks to mankind’s virtual triumph over those nasty bacteria, viruses and parasites, ‘non-communicable diseases’ now make up a large proportion of the things that kill us. This is good news, since they mostly kill us in old age. As much as we might like to indulge in the narrative of people dying in their sleep from old age, the chances are they died of a disease – probably one that was respiratory or circulatory in nature.

It’s not all good news, of course. Some of these diseases are preventable to some extent or, more accurately, we can reduce the risk of getting them to some extent. Last year, a Cancer Research UK report claimed that 40 per cent of cancers could be avoided by (fairly dramatic) lifestyle changes. This is almost certainly an exaggeration, but even if true it remains the case that the cause of most cancers is unknown and preventing them is therefore rather difficult. Moreover, if you duck one non-communicable disease, there will be another one waiting for you a little further down the line. Most cancer deaths in Britain involve people over the age of 75 and age is the single biggest risk factor for virtually all forms of the disease. So long as the population keeps ageing and the nasty bugs and germs are kept at bay, there is little prospect of reducing mortality from non-communicable diseases as a category. Indeed, if the WHO sticks to its original remit and vanquishes tropical diseases and malnutrition in Africa and Asia, we can expect to see a rise in the incidence of the diseases of old age (the WHO’s own figures predict a 17 per cent rise in deaths from NCDs in the next decade).

And yet, it seems that your government (wherever you live) has decided it can confound nature. On Saturday at the sixty-fifth World Health Assembly – a meeting of the 194 member countries of the World Health Organisation – ‘delegates approved the development of a global monitoring framework for the prevention and control of NCDs, including indicators and a set of global targets. Member States agreed to adopt a global target of a 25 per cent reduction in premature mortality from non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases by 2025.’

Depressingly, a press release informs us that: ‘The NCD Alliance, a global advocacy organization representing a network of more than 2,000 civil society organizations led a major lobbying campaign, and mobilized its network to ensure this target was secured.’

‘Intense lobbying by NGOs’ : the epitaph of our times. How delightful it is that these organisations think that lobbying and legislation is a substitute for biology and medical science. Rejoice in the entirely arbitrary figure of 25 per cent! Bask in the ludicrously short timeframe (barely more than 12 years) in which this miracle is to take place!

If we take carbon-emissions targets as our guide – as these people evidently have – we can expect a further meeting in a couple of years when governments will sign an even tougher (but even more historic) target of 50 per cent. Oh, what the hell, let’s make it 100 per cent. There will be no more death on this planet if we can just get career politicians to sign meaningless pieces of paper in five-star hotels.

This would be a more impressive announcement if these latter-day Neville Chamberlains accompanied it with the (admittedly unlikely) news that scientists have (a) found out what causes most cancers, and (b) have found a cure/vaccine. Sadly, they have not, nor does such a breakthrough seem imminent. Instead, what we have is a prohibitionist’s charter.

In addition to adopting an overarching target, Member States have committed ‘to reach a consensus, before the end of October, on additional targets on tobacco, blood pressure, salt reduction and physical activity; and to consider adding further on targets relating to alcohol, obesity, fat intake, cholesterol and health-systems responses such as availability of essential medicines for NCDs’.

Whatever targets these people have in mind, it is extremely unlikely – if not a mathematical impossibility – that even their full and total implementation would lead to the mortality reduction they are chasing occurring, let alone by 2025. What we have here is an impossible target that will be pursued with boundless ferocity at any cost.

If 194 countries really have signed this quasi-treaty, you can expect to hear much more about our ‘legal obligations’ to control eating, drinking, smoking and – the mind boggles – ‘physical activity’ for many years to come. You may recall last year’s charming article from Jonathan Waxman in The Times titled ‘To avoid cancer, let the State dictate your diet’, which was itself based on the claim that lifestyles cause 40 per cent of cancer. That is only the start and it is, of course, why the puritans, bureaucrats, nannies and headbangers of public health are so keen on the idea of ‘non-communicable diseases’, because it gives them what every trigger-happy army general wants: a war without end.

Chris Snowdon is the author of The Art of Suppression: Pleasure, Panic and Prohibition Since 1800 (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

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Topics Politics


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