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A solution must be found

by
02 November 2006

THE Government’s White Paper on public health unveiled by the Health Secretary, John Reid, on Tuesday, sets out measures to improve the fitness and well-being of the population in England. It tackles obesity, alcohol abuse and sexually transmitted diseases. Most attention, however, has focused on a proposed ban on smoking. The ban is partial, and Mr Reid has attracted criticism from both sides: those who say that this infringes upon individual freedom, and those who say that the proposed ban — in the workplace and in pubs with kitchens by 2008 — does not go far enough. The medical establishment has expressed its disappointment at the ban’s limits.

The issue of passive smoking has galvanised Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and now England. An estimated 42 per cent of adults and children are exposed to tobacco smoke at home, and 11 per cent at work. Medical researchers put the death toll from passive smoking at about 1000 a year. Nevertheless, these new measures are primarily about persuading smokers to give up. "Today, 26 per cent of the UK smoke," said Mr Reid. "We will take another two million off that figure in five years." But he also says: "We take people’s freedoms very seriously here."

Just as the Government is fearful of being charged with "nanny-statism", so the Church has tried to avoid anything to which the label "Puritan" might be attached. It is a curious historical quirk that the movement most associated with individual freedom of conscience was also responsible for imposing tight restrictions on those freedoms. This stemmed, in part, from a belief in the absolute rightness of a course of action (or more usually, the absolute wrongness of another); more significant, though, was the puritanical belief in being able to exercise complete control over the citizenry. At most times in our history, those in government have been more realistic about the extent of their powers, and have tempered their laws to what can readily be enforced. Similarly, a second and, some would say, more authentic strain in Christianity appeals to temperance, which in the New Testament is referred to as "moderation" or "sobriety". St Augustine wrote: "To live well is nothing other than to love God with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul, and with all one’s efforts; from this it comes about that love is kept whole and uncorrupted (through temperance)."

Cigarettes, alcohol and junk food continue to be popular because they are enjoyable. The death toll from smoking-related disease is vastly too great (an estimated 86,500 a year). Nevertheless, if the dangers of passive smoking can be eradicated, the Government is right to be cautious about imposing its view of living well on the public, however well argued it might be.

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