“Public Health” and the New Progressivism

When it comes to supposed threats to Americans’ freedoms originating in academe, conservatives often like to point out the mouldering Marxists in various humanities departments around the country. I am largely unconcerned, except to the extent that these professors impose ideological orthodoxy on their students or erode academic standards. No, a far larger and more imminent threat comes from the inherently politicized discipline of “public health.”

Formerly a discipline devoted to research on sanitation and epidemiology, public health is now more or less an explicitly ideological field devoted to ginning up panic over freely chosen, private behaviors and to cheerleading for paternalist government action to prohibit or discourage them. Take any fun activity enjoyed by those who are not urbanized, (generally) white, middle-aged, highly educated professionals – smoking, shooting, drinking, eating tasty food, calling a friend in the car, generally exercising “personal freedoms” – “public health advocates” are agin’ it. (Of course, you don’t see them agitating against marathon running or rock climbing or bungee-jumping or long-distance hiking or extramarital sex. Fun, risky things that urbanized, highly educated professionals like.)

The question the public-healthies (for short) never think to ask is: Does maximum health make people better off? If people are aware of the risks of an activity, and do it anyway, doesn’t that very fact show that they are better off being permitted to do it? Why is there a need to tax or regulate them into compliance with your preferences? If you think that people are not aware of the risks, why not restrict yourselves to educating them – in a sane, reasoned, non-hysterical way?

The new public-healthery has increasingly come to reject education in favor of regulation. Why is that? Simple: today’s public-healthery isn’t about people’s happiness at all, but about controlling people. The new “progressivism” is taking public-healthery on board in a big way. Look at the states and cities that lead the way on smoking bans, stratospheric tobacco taxes, gun control, salt bans, trans fat bans, soda tax proposals by governors, cell phone driving bans – you name it. They’re all “progressive” places – New York city, California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, etc. Indeed, in my study of state policy ideology with William Ruger and Fait Muedini, we find that these paternalistic regulations are some of the most statistically significant correlates of state ideology.

The left is becoming less about labor activism and helping the poor – FDR-style liberalism – and more about soccer-mommery: making sure those “youths,” nonwhites, poor people, Southerners, etc. are less visible with their obnoxious habits and pastimes. The gradual vocabulary shift we’re witnessing on the American left – from “liberalism” to “progressivism” – is thus appropriate, because these attitudes are similar to those that underlay the early 20th century progressive coalition. The early 20th century progressives were mostly white Anglo-Saxon Protestants of the Northeast, Midwest, and Pacific coast who were concerned about the growing power of immigrants and urban party machines. The reforms they advocated – from direct democracy to eugenics to prohibition – are all consistent with the objective of enforcing neo-Puritan, social gospel values and breaking the political influence of immigrant-dominated urban machines.

As the private sector union density rate has declined in the U.S. and the Democrats have had to reach out more to suburban voters to win elections, we have seen a sectional and class realignment that has concomitantly driven many working-class and rural voters into Republican arms. In my view, this shift is ultimately bad for Democrats, traditional left-liberals, and the country. The public-healthies are creating a backlash the more extreme their proposals become and the more hysterical their rhetoric over issues like second-hand smoke. We need only look to the ongoing popular backlash against global warming science to see what ultimately happens when advocates oversell their case.

The politics behind today’s public-healthery are sinister. They are driven by loathing of the poor, the overweight, people who shop at Wal-Mart and eat at fast-food joints, people with a Southern accent (who probably own guns and might even smoke) – the list goes on. Otherwise, why aren’t progressive-dominated governments trying to ban colorful local diners and casual-dining chains the way they are fast-food chains – even though the former often have higher-calorie food and don’t even report calorie counts to their customers? Of course, it’s the white middle classes who frequent quaint diners and TGI Friday’s.

So – I raise a glass of whisky and a cigar to the hope of a backlash against “public health,” a new Coalition for Fun.

11 thoughts on ““Public Health” and the New Progressivism

  1. Spot on. Too many people in my peer group (college-educated, 24-30 yrs. old) are jumping on the ‘public healthery’ bandwagon and it is starting to get on my nerves.

    I’m tempted to start a Coalition for Fun (or something similar) myself … great idea. No worries though ~ I’ll be sure to link to your post so you get the credit.

  2. 1) Marathon running is as risky as smoking and drinking??
    2) “If people are aware of the risks of an activity, and do it anyway, doesn’t that very fact show that they are better off being permitted to do it?”
    The fact that people smoke crack even if they are aware of the risks, shows they are better off smoking crack?
    3) In the realm of highly addictive drugs is rational choice possible most of the time?
    The idea that a person weighs the pros and cons of an activity like smoking and makes a rational choice to do so seems unlikely.
    4) And it seems to me that cell phone driving bans, are similar to banning drunk driving, they have an effect of protecting all of society. (if they are effective, which is debatable)
    I think there needs to be a realization that sometimes the general public makes choices that are not rational, and not in their self-interest. In fact it seems likely that people are biased in this area for pleasure seeking, not rationality. There is a certain truth to the idea that excessive regulation is bad, but some of this is like objecting to seat belt laws on coercion grounds, when it is clearly in a person’s rational interest to wear one, regardless of their informed preferences. While public policy differences are legitimate, you shouldn’t act as if people’s preferences are so sacred that they are not misguided.
    Note: im not talking about guns here, I don’t really think that’s a public health issue, even if the discipline claims it is.

    1. I actually agree with your main point: “you shouldn’t act as if people’s preferences are so sacred that they are not misguided.” People can make the wrong decisions, but, apart from children and the mentally deficient, they do so because of mistaken beliefs. So the solution isn’t coercion, but education. Even with addictive drugs, in my view.

      It’s true that talking on the phone while driving can pose risks to others. But rather than cell phone driving bans, I favor penalties for “distracted driving,” as Maine has. Calling someone while stopped at a red light doesn’t pose risks to anybody.

    2. 1) Well, the first marathon did end with the death of the runner. Marathons select for healthy people, but I’ve seen a lot of people over do it and get very serious injuries. Marathon running may also actually be a common form of male anorexia. I think you’ve missed the point of the article. I work in public health and I really don’t know if marathon running is worse for your health than smoking or drinking, because we don’t study it and are data on smoking anyway is propaganda.

      2) If a person smokes a cigarette or pot or has a fairly harmless pharma addiction, are they better in prison or restricted access to employment? Or is rather the role of public health to provide education to prevent addiction, provide the best possible drug abuse treatment and do research to find a cure for addiction? Public health used to cure disease. Education can’t cure hard-core addiction, but neither does regulation, sin taxes or incarceration.

      4) Yeah texting while you drive is bad. Even calling, though not so much. Car accidents are the leading cause of death of working age people and giving tickets out is a fairly reasonable imposition.

      Note: Gun violence is the second leading cause of death of working age people. A lot of attention is paid to deaths of retired people. That’s nice, but until we cure cancer or something big, it will be hard and unfortunately increasing the life expectancy of retirees increases the governments liabilities to them. Decreasing the death rate of working age people increases productivity. It should be a priority public health goal.
      The vast majority of gun violence are suicides, so partly its a mental health issue. People think of violence against others when they hear “gun violence” and actually I know of a very successful education campaign in California that reduced the use of guns to solve disputes among gang members by simply explaining that violence is cyclical-you shoot, they shoot you back.
      Education can be a very very big help.

  3. The new Tobacco Prohibition

    I would like to take the time to tell the entire community about a falsehood so big that everyone who believes in freedom should be appauled.
    This falsehood is so big it resonates from historical fact forward to this day. This falsehood is so big billions of dollars have been spent to make it believable to those of us who dont take the time to look up the facts.
    We all remember reading about alcohol prohibition,but did you know there was also tobacco prohibition going on before alcohol became such a target of the last nanny staters.
    Our great grandparents lived thru prohibition and the great depression,they also lived thru tobacco prohibition.

    Heres a time line starting in 1900,dont be surprised to see the same thing playing out today nearly 100 years later.

    1901: REGULATION: Strong anti-cigarette activity in 43 of the 45 states. “Only Wyoming and Louisiana had paid no attention to the cigarette controversy, while the other forty-three states either already had anti-cigarette laws on the books or were considering new or tougher anti-cigarette laws, or were the scenes of heavy anti- cigarette activity” (Dillow, 1981:10).

    1904: New York: A judge sends a woman is sent to jail for 30 days for smoking in front of her children.

    1904: New York City. A woman is arrested for smoking a cigarette in an automobile. “You can’t do that on Fifth Avenue,” the arresting officer says.

    1907: Business owners are refusing to hire smokers. On August 8, the New York Times writes: “Business … is doing what all the anti-cigarette specialists could not do.”

    1917: SMOKEFREE: Tobacco control laws have fallen, including smoking bans in numerous cities, and the states of Arkansas, Iowa, Idaho and Tennessee.

    1937: hitler institutes laws against smoking.This one you can google.

    Now onto the falsehood……

    We have been told for years by smoke free advocates that second hand smoke is the cause of everything from johnnys ear ache to cousin ED’S lung cancer. But wheres the proof!!!

    Remember they claim 50,000 deaths a year yet,there are no bodys not even mass graves of the dead to second hand smoke.We await the names of these victims.

    A simple stroll down historys road say 10 years or so and we start to get at the truth……

    A federal Judge by the name of osteen got a case dropped in his lap in North Carolina,the case was that of EPA’S study on second hand smoke/environmental tobacco smoke.The judge an anti-tobbaco judge by reputation spent 4 years going thru the study and interviewing scientists at EPA and came to the conclusion :


    ”EPA’s 1992 conclusions are not supported by reliable scientific evidence. The report has been largely discredited and, in 1998, was legally vacated by a federal judge.Before its 1992 report, EPA had always used epidemiology’s gold standard CI of 95 percent to measure statistical significance. But because the U.S. studies chosen[cherry picked] for the report were not statistically significant within a 95 percent CI, for the first time in its history EPA changed the rules and used a 90 percent CI, which doubled the chance of being wrong.

    This allowed it to report a statistically significant 19 percent increase [a 1.19rr] of lung cancer cases in the nonsmoking spouses of smokers over those cases found in nonsmoking spouses of nonsmokers. Even though the RR was only 1.19–an amount far short of what is normally required to demonstrate correlation or causality–the agency concluded this was proof SHS increased the risk of U.S. nonsmokers developing lung cancer by 19 percent.”

    The EPA fought to have Osteen’s decision overturned on technical grounds, ignoring the multitude of facts in the decision. They succeeded in 2002 on the narrowest of technicalities. The fourth circuit court of appeals ruled that because the report was not an official policy document Osteen’s court did not have jurisdiction. In their appeal the EPA did not answer a single criticism in the 92 page report, nor challenge a single fact put forth by Judge Osteen. Not one.

    Although the anti-smoker movement was already established, this report was used, and continues to be used, to bolster their claim that SHS is a killer.
    http://knol.google.com/k/second-hand-smoke #

    So here we find that second hand smoke was made a political scapegoat by EPA.Lets not forget how EPA has reworked the global warming studys just this last summer. Where its top scientists paper was rebuked because it didnt carry the EPA’S stand that global warming was real.

    The political shenanigans surrounding SHS/ETS go deep not only with the government and its health agencies but also to the big pharmaceutical companies and non-profit orginizations aka ACS,ALA,AHA and a meriad of others. All lobbying for smoking bans and their weapon of choise Propaganda paid for by big pharma and tax dollars. Studys made to order that second hand smoke is deadly. Take a memory note here too,over 250 studys on shs/ets have found it safe.

    Yet a simple look at the chemistry shows us that its:

    About 90% of secondary smoke is composed of water vapor and ordinary air with a minor amount of carbon dioxide. The volume of water vapor of second hand smoke becomes even larger as it qickly disperses into the air,depending upon the humidity factors within a set location indoors or outdoors. Exhaled smoke from a smoker will provide 20% more water vapor to the smoke as it exists the smokers mouth.

    4 % is carbon monoxide.

    6 % is those supposed 4,000 chemicals to be found in tobacco smoke. Unfortunatley for the smoke free advocates these supposed chemicals are more theorized than actually found.What is found is so small to even call them threats to humans is beyond belief.Nanograms,picograms and femptograms……
    (1989 Report of the Surgeon General p. 80).

    Now, how odd that when we search the smoke free activists sites not one of them mentions that water vapor and air are the main components of second hand smoke. Is this just a fluke or an outright omission to further their political healthscare against the general public.

    The last informative tid bit I have for you is what does OSHA have to say about all this secondhand smoke stuff.

    Here is where it gets interesting,it seems John Banzhaf, founder and president of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) decided to sue OSHA to make a rule on shs/ets not that OSHA didnt want to play ball with him,its just that the scientific facts didnt back up a rule to start with.

    Now for a rule to happen Osha has to send out for comments for a period of time and boy did the comments fly in, over 40,000 of them….Osha has whats called PEL’S and limits for an 8 hour period of exposure to chemicals in indoor environments…[epa is in charge of outdoor air]some smoke free groups have tried to use 30 minute air samples using epa monitoring to create a air borne healthscare.

    The actual standard to use is OSHA’S

    The EPA standard is to be used for OUTSIDE ambient air quality and it is the average over a period of 3 years.

    The proper standard to compare to is the OSHA standard for indoor air quality for respirable particulate (not otherwise specified) for nuisance dusts and smoke. That standard is 5000 ug/m3 on a time-weighted average (8 hours a day, 5 days a week) and is intended to be protective of health over an average working life of 30 years!

    This is where second hand smoke really becomes a joke,remember its nearly 90% water vapor and ordinary atmospheric air…..now lets get to the facts of toxicology and dose makes the poison:

    According to independent Public and Health Policy Research group, Littlewood & Fennel of Austin, Tx, on the subject of secondhand smoke……..

    They did the figures for what it takes to meet all of OSHA’S minimum PEL’S on shs/ets…….Did it ever set the debate on fire.

    They concluded that:

    All this is in a small sealed room 9×20 and must occur in ONE HOUR.

    For Benzo[a]pyrene, 222,000 cigarettes

    “For Acetone, 118,000 cigarettes

    “Toluene would require 50,000 packs of simultaneously smoldering cigarettes.

    Acetaldehyde or Hydrazine, more than 14,000 smokers would need to light up.

    “For Hydroquinone, “only” 1250 cigarettes

    For arsenic 2 million 500,000 smokers at one time

    The same number of cigarettes required for the other so called chemicals in shs/ets will have the same outcomes.

    So,OSHA finally makes a statement on shs/ets :

    Field studies of environmental tobacco smoke indicate that under normal conditions, the components in tobacco smoke are diluted below existing Permissible Exposure Levels (PELS.) as referenced in the Air Contaminant Standard (29 CFR 1910.1000)…It would be very rare to find a workplace with so much smoking that any individual PEL would be exceeded.” -Letter From Greg Watchman, Acting Sec’y, OSHA, To Leroy J Pletten, PHD, July 8, 1997


    By the way ASH dropped their lawsuit because OSHA was going to make a rule and that rule would have been weak and been the law of the land,meaning no smoking bans would ever have been enacted anywhere,simply because an open window or a ventilation system would have covered the rule.

    Let me also tell you that the relative risk for shs/ets by the SG report of 2006 was a 1.19 ”EPA study is whats used to call it a carcinogen”……milks is a 2.43 and that glass of chlorinated water your about to drink is a 1.25 yet these things aren’t determined to be a carcinogen….The gold standard in epidemiology is a 3.0….Now had the SURGEON GENERAL included 2 other shs/ets studys the relative risk for disease from shs/ets would have been nearer a.60-.70 meaning it would have a protective effect against ever getting disease.

    But,what each of us has is years and years of exposure and the knowledge that our kids all grew up around shs and generations of others,yet we are here alive not dead from a lousy 30 minute exposure to shs as stanton glantz tries to claim…..thats another story and its just as crazy as all the rest of smokefree’s claim about shs/ets.

    Oh! have you heard the one about ”laugh” thirdhand smoke or third hand drinking.
    Like I said their claims border beyond that of any reasonable persons commomsence.

  4. The anti-smokers commit flagrant scientific fraud by ignoring more than 50 studies which show that human papillomaviruses cause at least 1/4 of non-small cell lung cancers. Smokers and passive smokers are more likely to have been exposed to this virus for socioeconomic reasons. And the anti-smokers’ studies are all based on lifestyle questionnaires, so they’re cynically DESIGNED to blame tobacco for all those extra lung cancers that are really caused by HPV. And they commit the same type of fraud with every disease they blame on tobacco.


    And, all their so-called “independent” reports were ring-led by the same guy, Jonathan M. Samet, including the Surgeon General Reports, the EPA report, the IARC report, and the ASHRAE report, and he’s now the chairman of the FDA Committee on Tobacco. He and his politically privileged clique exclude all the REAL scientists from their echo chamber. That’s how they make their reports “unanimous!”


    For the government to commit fraud to deprive us of our liberties is automatically a violation of our Constitutional rights to the equal protection of the laws, just as much as if it purposely threw innocent people in prison. And for the government to spread lies about phony smoking dangers is terrorism, no different from calling in phony bomb threats.

  5. Wanted to add one more thing.
    The other posters have so much great material on the smoking prohibition lobby, but its all stuff I’ve seen before.

    This comes straight to you from insider knowledge:

    Cigarette smoking has many health benefits. If you don’t believe me, I’ll let you google it. The government worked with the cigarette companies for many decades researching diseases that could be treated with nicotine/tobacco products. Now that the government would like tobacco to be banned, the development of nicotine-based treatments (nicotonics) has moved to small biotechnology firms. And who do you think runs them? Big Tobacco executives, of course! Big Tobacco (executives, the average worker and farmer still got screwed) will be making 100 times more money selling nicotine based pharmaceutical products than they ever did on cigarettes to treat many diseases that can be equally well treated with cigarettes. And if you think these drugs will not have side-effects like cigarettes*, you’re a sheeple.

    *Average smoking related death, even after as above shows all propaganda included, occurs at age 65

  6. People are not smoking for the health benefits, they are smoking because they are addicted. The vast majority of the population is made worse off by smoking, if you want specialized populations like parkinson’s suffers or the mental disordered to smoke, then fine.
    I have no idea if second hand smoke issues are overblown, i can tell you though, that i detest breathing it in, it does make me cough, and would support banning smoking in populated public places, like universities etc.
    And i did not miss the point of the article, part of being able to apply a libertarian ideology consistently in an area like this is by creating false equivalences between activities like marathoning , smoking and drinking. yes people die running marathons RARELY, versus the thousands of people who are killed by smoking related diseases every year.
    I can’t speak to the overall efficacy of regulation and taxation in this area, but it’s silly to reject it outright because its an infringement on someones liberty to do something they like. I have no problem with making something like smoking unacceptable in public through a ban. And of course, there needs to be more required treatment upon drug arrest and less incarceration.

  7. “Progressives” want to ban all smoking of tobacco, but not marijuana? It can be argued that marijuana is more dangerous – burns hotter and is stickier, but no progressives are arguing against medical marijuana. It is really just the camel’s nose under the tent for full legalization. In states where it’s legal, virgually anyone can get a medical excuse for it.

    You need to add this to the list of things not to be banned because progressives do it as opposed to the knuckle draggers (in their view) who smoke or chew tobacco.

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