Redefining the meaning of “Epidemic”

One of the odd characteristics of our times seems to be that, rather like in Alice In Wonderland, words increasingly mean whatever people want them to mean. So now “gay” means “homosexual”, and “liberal” means more or less the opposite of what it used to mean not very long ago.

Yesterday I was highlighting another word whose meaning has somehow changed: epidemic. I was quoting the WHO FCTC Foreword:

The WHO FCTC was developed in response to the globalization of the tobacco epidemic. The spread of the tobacco epidemic is facilitated through a variety of complex factors with cross-border effects, including trade liberalization and direct foreign investment. Other factors such as global marketing, transnational tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, and the international movement of contraband and counterfeit cigarettes have also contributed to the explosive increase in tobacco use.

In my understanding, an “epidemic” is short for an “epidemic disease”, and an epidemic disease is a disease which spreads rapidly through a population, and a disease is a physical disability often causing fever, wasting, weakness, and ultimately even death. People suffering from such diseases (like cholera or measles or mumps) often get covered with spots or boils or sores.  Dictionary definition of the noun:

epidemic: ɛpɪˈdɛmɪk noun 1. a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time.”a flu epidemic”synonyms: outbreak, plague, scourge, infestation; 

However, in the FCTC Foreword, an “epidemic” means something else. It now merely means something that has become very common or ubiquitous. Tobacco, and the use of tobacco, is not an infectious disease. In fact it is not a “disease” at all. Tobacco users do not suffer dis-ease. Quite the opposite: tobacco use provides tobacco users with ease.

However the same dictionary definition of an adjective:

epidemic: ɛpɪˈdɛmɪk adjective 1. of the nature of an epidemic.”shoplifting has reached epidemic proportions”synonyms: rife, rampant, widespread, wide-ranging, extensive, sweeping, penetrating, pervading;

So the authors of the FCTC would appear to have shifted from the noun meaning to the adjective meaning of the word “epidemic”, the Greek origins of which  are

from epidēmios ‘prevalent’, from epi ‘upon’ + dēmos ‘the people’.

Now it may be perfectly correct adjectival usage of the word to say that “shoplifting has reached epidemic proportions” or even that  “smoking has reached epidemic proportions”, but this does not mean that either shoplifting or smoking are epidemic diseases.  It simply means that they have become rampant. common, ubiquitous, pervasive. It does not mean that we need to call for doctors to treat these problems.

But the FCTC asserts that tobacco and tobacco use has become not merely rampant or prevalent, but has become an epidemic, and an epidemic disease. And the World Health Organisation is now treating smoking as a disease on a par with typhoid or cholera or Ebola. It is throwing huge resources into the fight against the smoking epidemic. It even has international conferences to discuss the matter.

This seems to be another characteristic feature of our time: that costly and expensive conferences are held to coordinate the fight against non-existent threats. Smoking is only one such non-existent threat. Global warming (or as it has been renamed: Climate Change) is another such non-existent threat. My own favourite non-existent threat is of course Asteroid Impacts.

In each case, something which may be a small problem is magnified into a large problem: mountains are made out of molehills. It may well be that smoking causes some people to die earlier than they might otherwise have done. It may also be that carbon dioxide generated by human industry might be causing a slight increase in the atmospheric temperature of the Earth. And it may be that there are asteroids orbiting the Sun that may one day impact the Earth, and cause mass death and destruction. But these small threats do not merit raising any immediate alarm, and throwing huge resources into preventive measures, when such resources would be better used elsewhere.

But in the case of tobacco and smoking we are seeing the top echelons of the medical profession in the WHO redefining the widespread prevalence of smoking and tobacco use into an epidemic disease against which the full resources of the WHO and governments all over the world must be deployed. Smoking has itself become a disease, and tobacco companies – and now smokers everywhere -, are now regarded as carriers of the disease, as disease vectors. For example, in malaria a mosquito is the vector that carries and transfers the infectious agent, the Plasmodium parasite. And now the WHO has set out to stamp out smoking in the same way as it set out to stamp out malaria: by eradicating it from geographical areas (swamps in the case of malaria, pubs and restaurants in the case of smoking).

And since epidemics requiring medical intervention and government legislation can now be anything that is highly prevalent or rampant, the tobacco epidemic is just one of many similar epidemics. We are now told that there is an alcohol epidemic, and an obesity epidemic. There seems also to be a sugar epidemic and a salt epidemic.

Had 1960s’ Beatlemania  been classed as an epidemic disease by the WHO at the time, senior doctors and epidemiologists would have gathered to discuss the problem at international conferences. Quite clearly all those screaming girls at Beatles’ concerts were in deep distress. Why else would they be screaming? What was the vector that spread this disease all over the world? How was it to be brought under control? How was it to be eradicated? Perhaps such international conferences had already actually been organised, when the Beatlemania epidemic subsided of its own accord, much like epidemics of bubonic plague subside of their own accord.

But what’s to stop the current popularity of Donald Trump being classed as an epidemic disease afflicting many Americans? Nothing, as far as I can see. I can see no reason whatsoever why the WHO should not publish a Framework Convention on Trump Control, in which the Trump phenomenon is described as a global epidemic. I can see no reason why Trump supporters should not be treated in the same way as tobacco smokers: as diseased people who need to quit their habit (perhaps using Trump Replacement Therapy). And in fact in many ways that is exactly how they are being treated.

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17 Responses to Redefining the meaning of “Epidemic”

  1. RdM says:

    And in a further ugly twist, for a wee while now we have
    with a really ugly logo, stubbing out on Europe…

    Still, useful to know what the enemy is up to…

  2. garyk30 says:

    Let us look at the word ‘free’.
    Free healthcare is good; but, free speech must be controlled because it can hurt some feelings.

    Free college education is good; but, a free marketplace is bad and markets must be controlled.

    Those claiming moral superiority are free to tell/force us how to live our lives; but, we are not free to make our preferred choices.

    ‘Discriminating’ people used to be admired for their good taste; but, these days being discriminatory get’s you cursed.

    And the list goes on.

  3. Rhys says:

    No idea if this post will go through, most of them don’t. I think wordpress hates me or something – I get a ‘this post cannot be published’ right after I hit submit most of the time.

    Mildly OT? Just read the most revolting article by a vaper wondering if he should exert more pressure on his smoking friends to take up vaping instead.

    I vape sometimes myself (it’s a lot easier to hide in hospital for one, where I spend far too much time), but this…as my stepfather used to say, there’s nothing worse than reformed smokers, reformed drunks, or evangelical anythings. He didn’t know how right he was.

  4. Joe L. says:

    Another excellent post, Frank. If anything has reached “epidemic proportions” as of late, it is the prevalence of Orwellian newspeak and doublethink.

    Had 1960s’ Beatlemania been classed as an epidemic disease by the WHO at the time, senior doctors and epidemiologists would have gathered to discuss the problem at international conferences.

    This reminds me of a satirical story from about ten years ago by the Onion, purported to be published on April 4, 1965, where they report on the “Beatlenemia” epidemic. Enjoy!

    One Million Teen-Age Girls Stricken in Beatlenemia Epidemic

  5. Smoking Lamp says:

    The redefinition of words and sowing memes as a means of propaganda for control is classic totalitarian fare as Orwell warned. Sadly we are in the midst of a healthiest “cultural revolution: where antismoking has been framed equal virtue. It is clear that this actually has little to do with health and is all about control for the sake of control but the masses are prone to jumping on the latest bandwagon (and in the case of antismoking have done so several times already). The masses don’t ever seem to learn, while the controllers perfect their vile trade.

  6. alanxxxalanxxx says:

    The nation appears to be gripped by an epidemic of prison riots. I’m certain our experts will be able to figure out what is causing them.

    • Rose says:

      Spot on in every respect, Walt.

      There’s even no safe level of potatoes.

      More than most people would ever wish to know about Solanine poisoning including animal experiments and the same records of mass human poisonings given in that article.


      “The Committee considered that, despite the long history of human consumption of plants containing glycoalkaloids, the available epidemiological and experimental data from human and laboratory animal studies did not permit the determination of a safe level of intake.

      The Committee recognized that the development of empirical data to support such a level would require considerable effort.

      Nevertheless, it felt that the large body of experience with the consumption of potatoes, frequently on a daily basis, indicated that normal glycoalkaloid levels (20-100 mg/kg) found in properly grown and handled tubers were not of concern…”

      I have used it many times before as an example of how to truthfully say that there is no calculated safe level of a plant without misleading anyone.

    • RdM says:

      From the article:
      “any potato will build up the toxin to dangerous levels if exposed to light or stored improperly.”
      I’ve quite often seen greening potatoes still on sale in supermarkets, more lower volume sales Chinese & Indian ones than the large chains, and called them out on it.
      Some of them didn’t even seem aware that the green part was poisonous.
      The higher turnover larger chains less likely to have them, but only because they didn’t get to spend so much time out under the store lights… it can still happen.
      At least you can cut it out, if under the dirt of unwashed ones (I generally just scrub, not peel, my potatoes, pick out odd flaws) one discovers some hidden greening.

      Also, I was surprised to learn that parsnip skin is not good for you, as I remember.
      One vegetable that should be peeled? I should look it up again…

  7. Rose says:

    H/T DickPuddlecote

    ‘We want burn!’ Rioting prisoners ‘demand tobacco’ at Birmingham prison with ‘one wing lost’ as anti-riot teams prepare to storm jail
    3rd September 2017

    “On Twitter, a West Midlands based criminology lecturer claimed the prison’s Wing A was “severely damaged” as inmates were heard chanting “we want burn” – which is prison slang for tobacco.
    He also claimed an attempt was made to takeover Wing B, but it was thwarted.
    His claims come amid fears over a policy which will see all jails completely smoke-free by September as experts warned it may result in violence.”

    “Elite Tornado teams are said to be on their way to the jail, where they may look at entering to restore order.”

    I don’t predict a riot: jail smoking ban need not spell unrest
    Deborah Arnott
    23 July 2015

    • Frank Davis says:

      The Independent neglects to even mention the introduction of a smoking ban in the Birmingham prison.

      I left a comment there pointing this out.

      • Rose says:

        How very remiss of them.
        It seems to have taken the prisoners just 3 days to find out that the nicotine patches don’t work, it took me about that long as well.

      • Furtive Ferret says:

        Same on the BBC website too. My first thought on reading the article was, “Must be down to a smoking ban”. So re-read the article thinking I’d missed a reference to it but absolutely nothing on the cause. If I was any less cynical I’d think it was a deliberate omission.

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