I was fascinated to hear Lord Darzi on BBC World Service Radio, talking with Dave Atherton about his proposals to ban smoking in London parks. Rather than transcribe the whole thing, I chose to only transcribe what Darzi said, so as to examine what he was saying more carefully:
“The proposals are to ban smoking in parks, not everywhere in London. And this is very much one of many proposals in tackling some of the major public health crises in the capital. We have 1.2 million people smoking, but we have 8,200 people dying of smoking a year. We have two classrooms of kids taking up smoking every day. We are dealing with an obesity crisis at the same time. 40% of our kids by the time they leave primary school are obese and overweight. The whole purpose of this proposal is to make our parks the beacons of health.”
We have “major public health crises” in London, do we? Has Ebola arrived already? The “crises” he’s talking about are those of smoking and obesity. They are, in short, not crises at all.
And how does he know that there are 1.2 million smokers in London, of whom 8,200 die every year, and that 2 classrooms of kids start smoking every day, and that 40% of them are obese? Of these figures, the only one that is plausibly accurate is the 40% obesity figure, because schools can weigh and measure their pupils, and determine whether they are “obese” using the pseudo-scientific BMI method. The other figures can only be guesses. Beats me how anyone can know how many kids start smoking every day. Are kids regularly asked “Have you started smoking?” in school?
And how does he know that the guesstimated 8,200 people died of smoking?
But the crowning glory must be the idea of making parks into “beacons of health”. What on earth is a “beacon of health”? Parks are are provided for relaxation and recreation. What makes this doctor think that he can change their purpose to something else (and something quite nonsensical at that)? Or that he has the right to do so?
“I think what we’re trying to do here is to make healthy choices easier. This is not about demonising smokers. This is about helping smokers…. I am a cancer surgeon. I see every day the consequences of smoking. It’s not just cancer. It’s amputations. We need to allow people to make healthier choices. We’re not banning cigarettes completely. This is not about cigarettes being illegal. It’s not about demonising smokers. This is about saying in our parks we would like to make our parks the role models, the examples of healthier living.”
He’s proposing to “make healthy choices easier” by banning people from smoking? He’s actually disallowing them any choice at all. So when he says that we need to “allow people to make healthier choices” (which they are already allowed to do), he really means that we must disallow them from making unhealthy choices.
He then announces that he’s a cancer surgeon. Presumably he has spent much of his life cutting out tumours, and is highly skilled at doing so. But how does he know that these cancers are the consequence of smoking? Is he an epidemiologist as well? In truth, he has no idea what caused the cancers he is presented with, just as he can have no idea whether a broken bone he is presented with was caused by falling down stairs, playing football, being hit by a car, or any of the other innumerable ways in which bones can be broken. He pretends to know far more than he actually does know, or actually can know.
And the parks have now ceased to be beacons, and become role models. In what way can a park be a role model?
“I am a great believer in choice, but let’s make the healthy choices. Let’s make sure that our kids in the future make those healthy choices. Nicotine is highly addictive. We know that. It’s more addictive than narcotics. And we need to help people to get off smoking cigarettes.”
We have already learned that he is no believer in choice. He wishes to remove choice. One might even say that his idea of choice is no choice at all.
And it’s questionable whether smoking or nicotine are addictive, let alone more addictive than “narcotics”.
And when he says “we need to help people” to stop smoking, this begs the question of whether they want to stop in the first place. Don’t they have a choice in the matter? No, they don’t, Darzi will give them no choice at all.
He then moves on to the other “crisis”, the “obesity crisis”:
“3.8 million adults are obese. It’s all related to our lifestyle illnesses. It’s the amount we’re eating. It’s the amount of exercise, or the less amount of exercise we do…. The whole point of this set of proposals is to get London to move. If you’re taking the Tube, think of going from the left side of the escalator and climb up the escalator. And how do we get more people walking the last mile to work, and the first mile back home? How do we incentivise them to do so. We have 8000 junk food outlets in London. A school in Tower Hamlets will have 43 junk food outlets around it. We have to do something about this. And they’re growing by 10% per year. So that one of the proposals is that we don’t have further expansion. So going back to the narrative here, this about allowing people to make healthy choices, and make that easier.”
I think that by now we may guess that “allowing people to make healthy choices” translates into “disallowing people from making unhealthy choices.” i.e. no choice at all. And we may guess that he’d like to turn off the Tube’s escalators and have people “make the healthy choice” of walking the whole way up and down. And in fact, we may guess that he’d like to close down London transport entirely, thereby offering Londoners the opportunity of “making the healthy choice” of walking the entire 20 miles to and from home. And we may also guess that he’d like to close down all the “junk food” outlets, thereby depriving Londoners of the high energy foods they will need to walk those 40 miles every day. He’s really proposing to reverse the logic of economic logic that created London in the first place – of making life easier for people -, by setting out to make life harder for them.
But it’s all concealed through the use of a language in which meanings have become inverted, so that “crisis” really means “no crisis”, “choice” really means “no choice”, “allow” really means “disallow”, and “helping” people really means “forcing” them, and so on. And all bolstered by a garbled mish-mash of conflicting “beacons” and “role models” and “incentives”.
I could’ve almost found reason to disagree with every word he said.
And I couldn’t help but think that Lord Darzi was a sort of Chauncey Gardiner, the simple-minded gardener in Being There, whose “simplistic utterances about gardens and the weather are interpreted as allegorical statements about business and the state of the economy,” and who ends up being chosen as the next US President. For a cancer surgeon is really just a glorified plumber or repair man or gardener. He has no more business to set out to impose his values and beliefs (i.e. “health”) on everyone else than plumbers or repair men. He should have stuck to his core job (like the WHO should have stuck to its core job), and left it to other people to run London. Unfortunately, our lives are more and more being determined by simple-minded people like him.