Commentary

The Ultimate ‘Public Health’ Shield

This article originally appeared on Techcentralstation.com on Sept. 14, 2005.
A PETITION from the public health movement, including the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the American Public Health Association, the American Cancer Society, and of every organization generally connected to negating risk and choice at the expense of individual freedom and personal responsibility*

To the Honorable Leaders of the G8:

Gentlemen:

We are on the right track. We have persuaded a large portion of this Earth’s governing bodies to reject sensible risk assessment, freedom of choice, and any semblance of personal responsibility when it comes to issues of the “public health.” Toward that end, we have expanded “public health” to include not only threats to which no reasonable person would subject himself — communicable diseases, for example — but also risky behaviors we find distasteful, even when those who engage in them know full well the risks. We’ve done this by citing the costs of said behaviors to society, mostly in terms of health care costs.

At the same time, we have succeeded in socializing health care in most of the developed world. In so doing, we’ve created a system where everyone has a stake in everyone else’s well-being. This makes our end goal of controlling and manipulating personal behavior much easier to implement.

When naysayers question what business the government has in regulating alcohol consumption, weight, or caffeine consumption, for example, we can merely point to how much public money a state effort to modify personal behavior will save in public health care costs. Thanks to socialized medicine, we’ve managed to make even the most private of behaviors subject to government regulation!

Our triumphs are considerable: We have banned all public smoking in Ireland, New Zealand, Italy, Australia, Iran, Montenegro, Malta, Norway, Sweden, Tanzania, Turkey, and Uganda. Even in America, once a bastion of so-called “personal freedom,” we’ve secured bans in eight states and hundreds of counties and cities, effectively canceling out America’s anachronistic, unhealthy addiction to principles like the “freedom of association,” or “property rights.” Even New York City — icon of American ingenuity and self-reliance — has not only banned smoking, but sends dedicated public health soldiers into private offices to issue citations for illegal possession of ashtrays. New York is currently considering a proposal to ban trans-fats from all of the city’s restaurants!

Which brings us to obesity. In a world where about a billion people are still at risk of starvation, we have successfully persuaded policymakers in developed nations to show great concern and consternation over obesity — a testament to our considerable success at framing public debate. We’ve managed to get public officials to declare that what people eat and how often they exercise not only a “disease,” but a disease that’s now a “global epidemic.” In America, we’ve convinced public officials of this looming catastrophe even as life expectancy has reached all-time highs, and deaths from the country’s three biggest killers have dropped dramatically in recent years.

Our zealous application of the precautionary principle and generous definition of “public good” has persuaded governments to pass laws regulating a wide range of personal behavior, including seat belt use, helmet use, alcohol consumption, food advertising and marketing, consumption of high-fat or high-sugar foods, gun ownership, indoor and outdoor smoking, use of dietary supplements, use of narcotics, use of marijuana, use of some medications, production and consumption of genetically modified foods, and, on more local levels, a panoply of other risky behaviors, bad habits, and unhealthy choices. We estimate our tireless, costly, and invasive efforts to curb undesirable behavior will in the end add weeks, perhaps months, to the tail-end of hundreds of thousands of lives.

While hammering away at “the number of lives this will save” has brought us great success in enacting restrictive public policy, we’ve also actually persuaded Important Officials to sacrifice lives when doing so benefits the overall public health — even if said benefit is merely symbolic. For example, our constant haranguing of genetically modified foods convinced the Zambian government to reject 15,000 tons of GM emergency food aid despite the fact that 3 million people there were at risk of starvation! Clearly, a high-point in the influence of our movement.

All of that said, there’s one rival to public health we’ve yet to stymie.

The entire world is subject to the ruinous effects of this demon, whose devastation can affect single individuals, entire communities, or, perhaps one day, every living being on Earth. It causes 3 million cases of skin cancer each year, 132,000 of them melanoma. It can be blamed for drought, famine, global warming, and thousands of incidents of heat-related mortality. According to the World Health Organization, a 10 percent decrease in ozone protection could affect an additional 4,500 annual melanoma cases. The heat this devil generates causes the wasteful use of fossil fuels to generate electricity to power air conditioning. Those same fossil fuels then work with the demon’s rays to contribute to global warming!

This rival, which is none other than the sun, is waging war on public health so mercilessly, we suspect he is being stirred against it by perfidious industry, perhaps the coal and oil industries who benefit from copious use of electricity-powered air conditioning and refrigeration, the sunblock industry, or the tourism industry, which crassly sells his radiant poison for crude profit, sometimes going so far as to imply that “rest and relaxation” beneath his crushing stare would effect benefits to health! So great is his threat, scientists say it one day may bring the end to all of humanity!

The only question, then, is why has government waited this long to act?

It’s time we did something about the sun. And while we would of course support the usual public health roadmap to eradicating such a threat — demonizing the tropical tourism, tanning bed, and tanning oil industries as “melanoma peddlers,” passing laws holding parents criminally liable for childhood sunburn, and so on — we have something grander in mind.

We ask you to be so good as to pass a binding treaty among G8 members calling for unprecedented international cooperation to construct an extra-terrestrial shade-casting contrivance of ample size to shield all of Earth of this nuisance’s warmth-wrapped, light-disguised cancer rays. That is, we’d like to block out the sun.

Be good enough, honorable World Leaders, to take our request seriously, and do not reject it without at least hearing the reasons that we have to advance in its support.

First, the public refuses to sensibly heed our warnings to shield themselves from ultraviolet radiation. Recent studies show that though the public is fully aware of the risks of skin cancer that accompany exposure to the sun, high percentages of the populace still insist on frequenting beaches, parks, and partaking in other dangerous outdoor activities. What’s worse, some even choose to imbibe of the sun’s temptuous but lethal product in “tanning beds,” which replicate the sun’s intoxicating effects when actual sunlight is nowhere to be found. It’s clear, in fact, that many of these poor souls are addicted to suntanning.

Dependence of course is indicative of an individual no longer exercising so-called “free choice,” he is wholly at the will of those supplying his “fix.” As is the case with marijuana, alcohol, tobacco, and junk food, in these cases, government is obligated to choose for those individuals who show they can no longer choose for themselves — not just to save them from themselves, but to save society from the health costs associated with their poor choices. Those who continue to choose “sun n’ fun” despite clear evidence that such choices lead to cancer aren’t acting rationally. They’re a drain on public resources. A serious approach to public health suggests the only remedy is to remove the “sun n’ fun” option entirely.

Second, incidence of skin cancer is on the rise. Naysayers suggest this is because technology has enabled better screening and detection. We prefer to think of it differently: Incidence is on the rise despite technology that has enabled us to identify what causes skin cancer, and our urgent pleas to avoid it.

Third, children are disproportionately affected by exposure to the sun. This project should be undertaken for the children. We feel no further argument on this point is necessary.

We anticipate your objections, gentlemen: but there is not a single one of them you have not picked up from the musty old books of the Big Business or libertarian advocates of “personal responsibility.” We defy you to utter a word against us that will not instantly rebound against yourselves and the principles behind policies you’ve already enacted in your respective countries.

Will you tell us that this is too expensive, or impractical to implement?

You’ve all engaged in a costly, impractical War on Drugs that has attempted to eradicate the use of abundant mind-altering substances, some of which man has been consuming with regularity from the time he first discovered their properties. You throw tens of billions of dollars at this “war” each year.

All told between you, you’ve likely spent more than $1 trillion. That you fail to make any progress year after year only inspires you to spend more. Our proposal is no less practical nor less frugal than your enduring drug prohibition (which of course we support).

“But,” you may still say, “unlike recreational drugs, sunlight is necessary for life. Agriculture would wither in its absence. Humans produce Vitamin D from its rays, and can scarcely survive without it.”

Of course, the same necessity argument could be made of food. Yet many of your lawmakers are considering or have already passed a “fat tax” on people who consume it to excess, or on foods you’ve determined are unnecessary, due, you say, to the public health costs associated with obesity (we agree, by the way). We’ll offer the same bargain: The device will be equipped to allow some sunlight to pass, but only to targeted areas of the planet.

Farmers, sunbathers, and other solar consumers would pay a “sun tax” for access to these areas, the proceeds of which would be earmarked for the treatment of victims of melanoma and anti-tanning education programs, to offset the public health costs associated with harmful exposure to sunlight.

Finally, you might argue that banning sunlight to stave off melanoma could have considerable unintended consequences. The energy cycle would almost certainly be inalterably disrupted, causing possible mass famine, starvation, and death. “Why should we condemn millions to death,” you might say, “in an effort to save a few thousand melanoma cases, or to prevent future draughts, heat waves, or global warming that may or may not ever actually happen?”

But you take similar precautions all the time. In the interests of safety, you routinely hold up progress that could benefit millions because you worry about the effects new ideas might have on dozens. Your government regulatory agencies overseeing medicine and new medical technology, for example, routinely prevent or delay access to drugs and treatments that could save hundreds of thousands of lives out of concern for the effects they may have on hundreds, or fewer. You refuse to let your citizens take their own risks when it comes to medicine, why should we let them take their own risk when it comes to sun exposure?

To the esteemed G8 leaders from Europe, you oppose (correctly, we believe) the development of genetically modified foods that almost certainly would save millions of lives the world over because of the remote possibility that such crops may, in theory, someday wreak some sort of environmental catastrophe, despite assertions from nearly every reputable scientific agency that the odds of such a catastrophe are near infinitesimal.

Our proposal to shield the Earth from the rays of the sun is in truth no significant departure from public policies you already undertake: your zealous application of the precautionary principle, your usurpation of individual rights for the public good, and/or your previous efforts to eradicate bad habits and unhealthy choices in the interests of socialized medicine.

In sum, we see no reason you shouldn’t adopt our proposal forthwith, and begin construction on a device that will shield the Earth from the cancerous rays of the sun.

(*Petition made possible by a generous grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation…. With apologies to Frederic Bastiat.)

Radley Balko is a policy analyst for the Cato Institute.