Not About Health

“It’s not about health.”

I think I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read those words in describing the reasons for the smoking ban.

After all, if you push people out into the cold and wet, you’re not improving their health. Same if you destroy their supportive communities and networks of friends. All supposedly to reduce the non-existent ‘health threat’ posed by secondhand smoke.

No, it’s certainly not about health. So what is it about?

A few days back I found myself imagining I was the owner of a quarry in southern Italy, sometime around 50 BC. I had a gang of several hundred slaves working from dawn to dusk breaking rocks to be shipped up the coast to Rome and other towns. And I’d got talking with the overseer about how the slaves should be treated.

Should they be allowed tea or coffee breaks? Certainly not. A 10 minute tea break means 10 minutes less rock-breaking, fewer rocks sold, and proportionally fewer denarii in the till at the end of the day.

Should they be allowed beer and wine? Absolutely not. This was even worse than tea or coffee. Because not only would they they waste precious time drinking the stuff, but they’d quite likely be drunk and incapable of work when they’d finished.

How about cigarettes? Not them either. A man smoking a cigarette has to take the time to light it, puff on it, and stub it out. Those precious seconds all add up. A man with a cigarette or a pipe in his mouth isn’t working as hard as he could be. So it can’t be allowed.

No, they’ll just have to do with a few swigs of plain water every hour or two. Nothing more.

What about food? Shouldn’t they be well fed, given all the work they’re doing? Certainly they must have adequate food, but it should be the cheapest food. Bread, vegetables, fruit, that sort of thing. And preferably food that doesn’t need cooking. Certainly they can’t be fed with caviare and larks’ tongues in aspic. Those are expensive foods. And they shouldn’t eat meat either, because that’s more expensive than wheat and barley and vegetables too. No cream cakes either.

They must be given just enough, and no more. We don’t want overweight, fat slaves. Nor do we want underweight thin ones. We want well-muscled slaves who aren’t carrying any fat at all.

As for breeding them, we want to just keep up the numbers. And we only want the best specimens breeding. We don’t want the lame and the sick and the malformed breeding.

And the old? We’ll do what we usually do. Drop them into the river at ebb tide, and let them be washed out to sea. There are plenty of hungry sharks out there that rely on a regular supply of food.

This struck me as a far more rational explanation of alcohol and tobacco bans, and of dietary restrictions on meat, sugar, fat, etc, and of injunctions to ‘keep fit’, and be neither too thin nor too fat.

And none of it had anything to do with health.

But then, reasons of this sort can hardly be given to justify smoking and alcohol bans, diet restrictions, keep-fit advice, and so on. You can’t tell people that you really just want to screw as much work out of them as you possibly can.

No. Instead you invent all sorts of spurious ‘health’ reasons to justify them. You tell them that the new rules are all for their own good. You produce ‘studies’ which show that smokers, drinkers, and fat people die 10 years younger than other people. You do want to live 10 years longer, don’t you? Well, don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t eat meat or fat or sugar or tasty fast food. Eat turnips and onions and bread instead. And drink water. It’s much better for you.

Of course, if anyone looks closely at these ‘studies’, they’ll find that they’re complete tripe, and not in the least bit scientific. But if you have them presented by authorities – like senior doctors called Sir Charles This or Sir Liam That – most people will believe every word they say.

And so at the end of my imaginary conversation with the quarry overseer, I asked:

Do I have to do this too? Do I have to eat bread and drink water and all that?

Of course not, he replied, with a broad grin. You aren’t the one who’s breaking rocks. Yours is a life of leisure. You can eat as much as you like, and drink as much as you like, and get as fat as you wish, and have as much sex as you can too. Here, I’ve brought some of your favourite Capuan cream cakes that arrived on the boat this morning. The rest are in the frigidarium, along with the beer and the quails’ eggs.

About Frank Davis

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15 Responses to Not About Health

  1. jaxthefirst says:

    I don’t doubt that there was an element of “quietly enhancing the productivity of the work units” behind the thinking of many proponents of the ban, but there’s a flaw in the whole theory, in that it doesn’t take into the account the fact that happy, contented workers are a whole heap of a lot more productive than resentful, shabbily-treated ones. Wasn’t it Denmark that saw a massive 30% drop in productivity levels across the board in the year immediately following their workplace smoking ban? In communist Russia they had the wonderful idea some decades back of doing away with weekends in order to “increase productivity,” only to swiftly reverse the decision when it was followed by such an extraordinarily sharp decline in overall productivity that even they, the bossy, know-it-all communists had to re-assess their position.

    There’s also the issue of the much under-rated goodwill factor which plays such a major part in getting the most from employees. I really don’t think that very many managers realise how important the goodwill factor is to their businesses. How many workers, faced with dictatorial, overbearing management decisions such as total smoking bans feel inclined to work late, get in early, take work home or initiate new projects and ideas? Why should they? These are all things which I used to do on a regular basis in my own job, but since 2007 I simply made the decision that they wouldn’t happen any more. The erstwhile-frequent unpaid overtime that I used to give willingly and happily to my employer has vanished in return for my being at my desk a sum total of around 15 minutes more than I used to be during official working hours – my breaks now taking around five minutes instead of about ten. Many employers’ over-reaction to the smoking ban has revealed in even the seemingly nicest of bosses a lurking tinpot dictator within which has come as a bit of a nasty surprise to many employees – even many non-smoking ones – and the effect on goodwill (and thus on productivity) has, in my view, played no small part in this country’s economic problems.

    And of course there’s the stress level, with all its associated health problems and absenteeism. Leaving aside for the moment the antis’ shrill cries that “smoking doesn’t decrease stress,” (a statement which in any case I disagree with), all the evidence these days is that workplace stress comes not from being too busy, or having too much responsibility, but from not having control over how you do your job on a task-by-task, day-by-day basis, whether you’re the Managing Director or the toilet cleaner. And being told precisely how you must, or mustn’t, organise your day, including your free time or your breaks, is a clear example of precisely such a stress-inducing environment.

    And then they all wonder why we’re possibly heading for another recession …

    • Frank Davis says:

      I don’t doubt that there was an element of “quietly enhancing the productivity of the work units” behind the thinking of many proponents of the ban, but there’s a flaw in the whole theory, in that it doesn’t take into the account the fact that happy, contented workers are a whole heap of a lot more productive than resentful, shabbily-treated ones.

      I’ve read several times that smoking bans are supposed to boost productivity. In fact, I think Deborah Arnott has said so several times. It’s not hard to see the reasoning behind this. It’s pretty much exactly what I set out in my piece.

      It was certainly used to justify alcohol Prohibition in the USA. I’ve been reading The Great Crash by Selwyn Parker, and of the economist Irving Fisher (who was wiped out in the 1929 crash) he writes on p 34:

      The accumulation of national wealth was so central to Fisher’s philosophy that he supported Prohibition on the grounds it would (he had calculated) boost national production by $6 billion.

      I bet there are plenty of Irving Fishers around today, making similar claims about smoking bans.

      Prohibition reduced the happiness and contentment of millions of Americans who had hitherto enjoyed a few beers with their friends. But happiness or contentment is something the Fishers of the world can’t measure, and something they probably don’t think matters anyway. They regard workers as being machines that can be made to work more efficiently, just like lathes and presses and milling machines.

  2. Pingback: Not About Health | Frank Davis « Fast Health

  3. Winston says:

    I often hear the (supposed) health crusaders invoking “lost productivity” and it strikes me how easily these arguments are completely debunked, but I never seem to hear what I think it the obvious counter-argument.

    I have never had a job where my employer told me, “Take as many days off as you like, and take a break anytime you want”. To the contrary, I have always been told how long I have for lunch and breaks. It’s usually the case that you even have to take your lunch and/or breaks at a prescribed time during the workday.

    So, where’s the lost productivity? The only way that “lost productivity” exists is if some workers are working (perhaps unpaid) during their break and lunch periods. This isn’t really “lost productivity” at all, because these people are working when they aren’t required to work. To the contrary, it’s actually additional, un-required productivity.

    What about “more sick days”, etc.?

    Usually, any good job prescribes a certain amount of paid time off for sick days, vacation days, etc. Also, if you don’t use all of the paid time off alotted to you in a year, you usually can only carry-over a very limited amount of time, if any time at all, to the next year. Otherwise, the paid time off prescribed to you is a “use it or lose it” proposition, meaning you lose the paid time off allotted to you in a year if you don’t use it.

    Jobs that don’t provide any paid time off tend to be either low-paying jobs, or jobs where intermittent work is available. People who take too much time off in these jobs tend to quickly find themselves fired, and the worker may not be too heart-broken about it, because these jobs often (not always) aren’t very good to begin with.

    The other possibility is that an employee takes breaks outside their prescribed breaks, or an employee takes so many sick days that they have to go unpaid for their additional days off.

    In both cases, it’s obvious that such an employee must still provide enough of a benefit to their employer that they retain their job. In the latter case, while the employee is taking additional time off, they aren’t being paid for the time off. Again, though, the employer supposedly chooses to retain the employee.

    So, where-oh-where, is the “lost productivity”?

    It can only be the case that “more productive” workers are workers who either do unpaid work, or willingly give up the paid time off/sick time they’ve earned according to employer prescibed guidelines. “Less productive” workers wisely use up the paid time off allotted to them rather than lose it, otherwise they go unpaid for their time off. In addition, if “less productive” workers who take more breaks than prescribed manage to retain their jobs, it’s most likely because that employee provides such value to the employer that it isn’t worth complaining about the additional breaks.

    So, what’s the problem? Where’s the “lost productivity”?

    Essentially, it boils down in many ways to what you’ve described in this blog post. What doesn’t quite fit about your proposition, though, is that the political entities that tend to align themselves with anti-smoking are usually the same people calling for higher pay, lesser hours, more benefits, and a quagmire of bureaucracy to protect workers from being fired by employers.

    Unless, of course, they’re smokers. And soon, unless they’re obese. Then, well, fire away.

    My best guess is that the historical model fits, and this is simply the latest incarnation of people scapegoating out of one side of their mouth, while crying out the promise of Utopia out of the other.


    • Frank Davis says:

      One of the reasons why I located my scenario in ancient Rome was to distinguish it from our modern condition of paid employment, which is very different.

      Nevertheless, I think that the attitude of a great many people today to workers is not really very different to the attitude taken by Romans towards slaves.

    • garyk30 says:

      “So, where’s the lost productivity?”

      Or, what is it that the antis consider to be ‘lost productivity?’

      The Campaign fo Tobacco Free Kids says it is ‘productivity/wages’ that are lost due to the pre-mature death of smokers.
      They die,their wages are not being earned and are lost to Society.
      But; in these days of high un-employment, companies will have no problem replacing the dead smoker with someone else.

      The wages still get earned and there is NO LOSS of productivity(wages) to society.

  4. smokervoter says:

    Precisely so Frank. It’s all about uber productive worker drones. Productivity gains are the mothers milk of snappy quarterly earnings reports.

    The overseers (Team Leaders in contemporary parlance) and the CEO’s want healthy, sober drone bees (Associates) for the good of the hive (Corporation). They get together with the group health insurers, who can quote the latest, greatest senior doctor stats with the best of them, and healthist culture is the inevitable result.

    The Occupy kids should camp out at ASH or TobaccofreeCA headquarters since they despise corporate condescension so much. Instead I’ll bet that professor Glantz’s spiffy Frisco uni kids are out there giving high fives to the protesters while singing from the same hymn books as the CEO’s, the health insurers and the overseers at the quarry.

  5. garyk30 says:

    Antis say that smoking ’causes’ $97 billion per year in lost productivity in America.
    Let’s do a bit of comparing.
    That $97 billion does not make the top 10 in this list.
    Lost Productivity

    Poor management planning and control …. $880 billion

    Worker interruptions …. $588 billion

    Employees wasting time on the job …. $544 billion

    Workers who don’t feel “engaged” in their work …. $350 billion

    Employers who don’t adapt to the needs of working parents … $300 billion

    Traffic crashes … $230 billion

    Illiteracy …. $225 billion

    Heart disease due to death and disability …. $152 billion

    Presenteeism” …. $150 billion

    Hangovers …. $148 billion

    Crime ….. $130 billion

    Poor power quality and reliability …..$120 billion

    Untreated and mistreated mental illnesses …… $105 billion

    Poor web designing …. $100 billion

    Roadway congestion ….. $100 billion

    Stress-related ailments …. $100 billion

  6. garyk30 says:

    “Illiteracy …. $225 billion ”

    In America we spend an average of $9,250 per year per student and the above number is what we get.

    Yaaah, a bunch of young adults that can not read or write, much less do basic maths!!!

  7. Slim truth in fat figures

    Michael West
    November 23, 2011 – 11:39AM.

    A leading actuary has lampooned health lobby figures on the costs of smoking and obesity as being extravagantly inflated and based on suspect methodology.

    “The numbers are all over the place,” writes Geoff Dunsford in the September edition of Actuary Australia. And they are “big numbers” – the implication being that they are too big.

    “Obesity costs $58.2 billion,” he exclaims, “that’s around twice the cost of age pensions!”

    The sheer size of the numbers, argues the Sydney actuary, perverts government policy. It can lead to poor spending decisions. The credibility of the numbers from the health lobby is therefore critical to government policy.

    The press and the public have been led to believe that the costs to the system are higher than they really are so the government can “justify use of taxpayers’ money on measures to reduce its prevalence and prevention”.

    Dunsford looks at three public health issues: obesity, smoking and depression.

    1. “….obesity …. drains the national budget each year by $58.2 billion”, (Sun Herald report, March 13, 2011).

    2. “…smoking … costs our society $31.5 billion each year”, (Nicola Roxon, media release, April 7, 2011).

    Well worth the read

    Read more:

  8. Lou says:

    It’s not at all important what we think Frank, it’s only about what they believe it is.

    Real big emotional hooks; addiction, saving us from Big Tobacco, the children, the NHS etcetera. So it’s easier and better for career advancement to go with health.

    And if, like the Dutch, the government thinks it’s better to have communities, small businesses and choice. Well they make a little bit of a fuss, then await a more “progressive” replacement.

    That it acts against smokers in the labour force is known to us, but refuted officially. That it acts as a major disincentive to the self employed has never been recognised. We’re far too widely scattered to be noted but we know the answer to that one.

    Very frustrating; very wasteful and – ultimately – utterly futile.

    Might I suggest you take a look at one single web page? It’s about Gene Sharp (his book was a key element in the Arab Spring). Please note his reference to fake “awards”. They hand those out with depressing regularity. And the mass mailings – how one punter can seem like many. FFT.

  9. chris sorochin says:

    A recent article on “binge” drinking in Long Island (US) “Newsday” contained the interesting tidbit that the biggest offenders were those making over $75,000 a year. I wondered if there would be the same class-based response–increased policing and enforcement in affluent communities, efforts to block points of sale for alcohol, redoubled efforts in schools in those communities,etc.–as there would be if the same had been found for those making under $30,000.

  10. Kathy says:

    Toxicologist Dr. Petr Skrabanek wrote about tobacco prohibition being in the self-interest of past rulers. In his final work, The Death of Humane Medicine and the Rise of Coercive Healthism, you’ll find much of historical interest in the chapter “Damned Tobacco” (pg 125 in Brad Taylor’s pdf version). If you haven’t read Skrabanek before, I’d recommend reading them all. I’m so glad I downloaded the “original” pdf copies years ago, when publicly and freely offered directly from the Skrabanek Foundation webpages. I will leave them to my children, along with my other most treasured keepsakes and books. Having disappeared following the Foundation’s pages, they thankfully reappeared here:

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