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BMAThe British Medical Association (BMA), the professional association and trade union for UK doctors, has proposed that alcohol advertising be banned, along with 30 other medical bodies and charities, to mimic the ban on tobacco advertising. They also recently proposed that the government should ban all smoking in cars. The intention is to protect the other passengers in the car, which could be non-smoking adults and children, from second-hand smoke. It follows a ban on smoking in public which passed into law in 2006.
The BMA highlights research which claimed that the levels of toxins in a car are “up to 23 times higher than in a smoky bar”, according to the BBC article. However, there is a study by the Canadian Medical Association Journal entitled ‘Second-hand smoke in cars: How did the “23 times more toxic” myth turn into fact?’ The study traced the genesis of this quote, which came from a local Canadian newspaper in 1998. Ross MacKenzie, from the School of Public Health at Sydney University and the study’s main author, said: “[W]e failed to locate any scientific source for this comparison.” This claim was later retracted by the BMA, saying instead “the risk was 11 times greater”. Whilst the BMA also affirms such a ban would be an extension on the 2006 smoking ban, which banned smoking in public spaces. It would criminalize an unaccompanied adult smoking in a car, which is clearly a private space.
Smoking and drinking are two activities in which the BMA is desperate to see legislated against, and have been for a long time. In 1984, the BMA launched a major anti-smoking campaign and banned smoking on all its premises, including its meetings. This was also when it first proposed a ban on smoking in all public places, and received a minor victory in the form of the Protection of Children (Tobacco) Act 1986, which precipitated a voluntary agreement on tobacco advertising and promotion. It then supported a total ban on tobacco adverting in 1997, which reached the statute books in 2002. It now actively lobbies the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales, usually for policies that are either being currently considered or outright rejected by the UK government in Westminster, such as banning smoking in cars in Wales, with the floor on alcohol prices now being legislated in both the Scottish Parliament and the British House of Commons.
The BMA, along with many other health organizations, use their powerful voice to rouse the public with various ‘epidemics’, particularly of smoking and alcohol. Whilst epidemics have traditionally referred to easily transmitted diseases infecting large proportions of the population, these latest ‘epidemics’ merely refer to significant numbers of people partaking in an activity. It is difficult to see how one may become fat or pregnant or drunk in the same way you may catch a cold or the flu. To call people eating more, drinking more or smoking more an ‘epidemic’ is to ameliorate their personal responsibility for their actions, and be a beacon for government intervention.
Despite all the headlines to the contrary, alcohol consumption among adults in England has waned. This report by the Health and Social Care Information Centre states: “In 1998, 75% of men and 59% of women drank in the week prior to interview, compared to 68% of men and 54% of women in 2010.” Drinking among school children has similarly diminished, with greater numbers saying that drinking is unacceptable at their age.
Smoking has been on the decline ever since records were first collected in 1948, when 65% of men and 41% of women smoked. According to Cancer Research UK (HTML version of Excel file), the rate of smoking in men was 60% in 1959, approximately 36% in 1984 and 21% in 2010, whilst the decline for women smoking has been from 42% in 1959 and 32% in 1984 to 20% in 2010. A large decline in smoking predated the BMA’s anti-smoking campaign, but coincided with an increasing body of scientific knowledge that showed smoking was unhealthy and could lead to various cancers. This is in contrast to the latest efforts to “denormalise” smoking, and resonating with the wish of Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, to “reset society’s norms” on drinking alcohol.
Calls for prohibition often emanate from the medical establishment. This latest proposal is just one in a long list, as the BMA also supports bans on boxing, online prescriptions and anyone under 18 years of age using a sunbed. The proposal for a “fat tax” came from the medical journal Lancet, which itself has a history of doctoral campaigning. The BMA conference in 2010 saw a motion by Dr. Christine Robison, an Edinburgh anaesthetist, to support a ban on drinking on all public transport, claiming it will “stop drunks annoying fellow passengers”. Dr. Robison herself had suffered such an experience in both directions on a return trip from Edinburgh to London. The issue of drunks on trains is clearly not a public health concern, but doctors desire to legislate regardless. Alcohol Concern, a group which campaigns to cut alcohol-related harm, rejected this proposal, with its chief executive Don Shenker saying: “To ban alcohol consumption across all public transport goes too far”.
The BMA is a vocal and illiberal organization, and is utterly addicted to banning things. Now, a vicious cycle now envelops us, with each ban propelling the case for the next. Smoking, like many activities, is dangerous and potentially deadly to the participant. Smoking in front of children is especially deplorable, but we should seek to educate those who do this, not to criminalize a small minority. It is for adults to make rational calculations over the known risks involved in drinking, smoking, sky-diving, mountain-climbing, gambling and any other enterprise. Doctors should not infantilize the populace by removing our choices and making decisions for us.