Monday, 7 March 2016

The government tells us that eating and drinking too much, smoking, and not exercising is bad for us! Who knew?

The government agency Public Health England has launched a campaign called "One You" (which sounds distinctly Chinese to me) whose aim is to inform middle-aged people that they're less likely to be ill later in life if they adopt a healthier lifestyle now. No kidding! Because, when I was middle-aged, I simply had no idea that smoking, eating and drinking too much, and not exercising might be bad for me. The problem, of course, was a lack of information. Whenever I read a newspaper or watched television, these things were simply never mentioned - in fact, I remember endless articles and TV programmes strongly advising me to avoid exercise, consume masses of sugar and fast food, drink myself insensible every night, and to try my best to get through at least 40 Benson & Hedges a day.

In an article on the BBC website, entitled "Middle-aged 'risk unhealthy retirement'", we learn that "PHE has also joined force with a number of partners, including the BBC Get Inspired brand, Asda - which will be providing free blood pressure checks - and Slimming World - which is providing discounted access to its schemes."

All jolly nice, of course, and who could object to such a gentle and seemingly well-meaning attempt to persuade mid-life Britons to pay attention to their health? And if this campaign were being conducted by a consortium of private companies, I wouldn't think twice about it. But at least two of the participants are spending public money - our money - on it, which worries me. It's not because I'm some sort of rabid libertarian who doesn't think a penny of tax should ever be spent on trying to change certain behaviours - I'd be perfectly happy for the government to spend a fortune on firing squads to deal with litter louts and anybody who dons a rib-ticklingly amusing costume to run in marathons "for cherridee" - but the problem with public sector initiatives like Wun Yoo, which are aimed at the determinedly unhealthy (like me), is that they never seem to make a blind bit of difference. I have never knowingly been persuaded to clean up my act by any publicity stunt organised by do-gooders - and, as a former smoker, drinker, sugar-guzzler and non-exerciser, I am their target audience.

As I've mended my ways on at least three of the health fronts targeted by One You - and have only stopped exercising because I'm physically incapable of it - what persuaded me to be good?

I had to give up drinking because I became allergic to it. My pancreas went body-mental and I experienced the worst pain I've ever had in my life. Even then, it required several lengthy bouts of agony before I admitted to myself I simply couldn't keep drinking. So I stopped. It too me several years to return to full robustness, and it was only then I realised how much my life had improved thanks to not drinking. Despite that, if a doctor had told the 45-year old me that I could start drinking again without experiencing any pain, I'd have been dumb enough to do it.

Giving up smoking was the result of shame. Three events stand out.  The first was when I found myself lighting up in order to draw in a few lungfuls while walking hurriedly between two BBC buildings which were about 30 steps apart (I had another bloody meeting to get to), and realising that passers-by were looking at me as if I were mad. Which, of course, I was. Then (and this will sound horribly snobbish, because it is) I realised one day that the only people I was sharing the open-air smoking area outside another BBC building were two bedraggled PAs (or secretaries, as they used to be known). It just didn't feel right. Thirdly, I found myself having to crane my head away from my five-year old son so as not to blow smoke straight into his face. A fine example I was setting. So, festooned with patches, sucking lollies, and vigorously chewing Nicorette gum, I waved cigarettes goodbye (Oh God, that was hard!).

As for sugary foods and bread and chocolate bars, I've given them all up temporarily on endless diets over the years, but I only forsook up for good nine months ago, and that wasn't because I have Type II diabetes (like that matters!) but because I thought it might help alleviate chronic fatigue. So I only finally started eating sensibly because I was already ill, not in order to avoid illness in future. (It hasn't really helped, but it's better than lying around being a victim.)

When I was in my late 40s, I started the latest in as long line of exercise regimes, cycling to work and visiting the gym three times a week. This lasted for about eighteen months. Why? Because I'd got a new job and I'd realised I had to be fitter in order to make a go of it. So the motivation was purely work-related, and was a result of panic. When I found out I was going to be allowed to take early retirement, I immediately returned to my old sedentary ways. (I've never been too clever for my own good - but I've often been too stupid for it.)

The point I'm (somewhat laboriously) making is that I suspect most middle-aged people with deeply-entrenched unhealthy habits don't respond all that well to shiny-faced do-gooders shouting feel-good slogans at us - in fact, if I'm anyone to go by, it probably makes the target audience dig in its heels and refuse to play ball, because we don't want to make these no doubt well-meaning busybodies merrily spending our money in order to justify their salaries feel any better about themselves than they already do (we tend to resort to the "My Aunt Lil smoked 60 a day, drank a litre of gin before lunch, spent most days in bed eating Mars Bars and lard butties, and she lived to 103!" type of argument).

Fear, shame, pain, panic, economic sanctions, and the twin threats of imprisonment and of not being allowed medical treatment tend to motivate behavioural change, rather than smiley-face promises of a brighter future - but I'm not sure most of us wouldn't choose ill health rather than live under the jackboot of the interfering, finger-wagging, therapeutic, we-know-what's-best-for-you state. It's a conundrum.


  1. Three observations.

    The first is that the question only becomes moot because of socialised medicine. If we insured our own health care privately it would be nobody else's damn business.

    Second, 'no one knows anything'(much) about what constitutes a healthy lifestyle - as witnessed by the Daily Mail. We appear to have no real idea what constitutes a 'safe' amount of alcohol, whether fat is evil or saintly, carbohydrates ditto. According to one of the two discoverers of DNA (I forget which) the much touted antioxidants may actually be highly dangerous.

    Some silence from the cranks, weirdos, doctors and scientists (in so far as these groups are distinguishable) would be useful until we actually have facts to guide us.

    Third, having recently watched an otherwise extremely fit and healthy man die a slow, agonising and expensive, death from Alzheimer's, are we sure a 'long life' is such a good idea?

    1. Couldn't agree more.

      For instance, here's a question I assume we'd all like answered definitively: does a high salt intake cause high blood pressure? This really, really matters, because high blood pressure is A BAD THING and because most food is unappetising without salt (I'm a big salt fan). Until a few years' ago, the unequivocal answer was - yes, salt is very bad for you, and for years, I've felt guilty about using so much of it. Recently, though, a number of studies have suggested that the link between salt and blood pressure has been, er... overstated? I read a book last year by a British nutritional expert (a proper doctor, not some New Age wanker) which tells us that relatively high levels of salt are actually good for us, and urges us not to cut down.

      Well, which is it? I can't believe that a link between salt and blood pressure is all that difficult to prove. And, while this doesn't affect me, how many more utterly contradictory articles about the benefits/dangers of drinking red wine (in moderation) are we going to bebombarded with? And does a daily intake of aspirin cut down the risk of heart attacks, strokes and prostate cancer or doesn't it? And is it true that coffee is probably good for cutting down the risk of cancer (apart, maybe, from lung cancer) or not? Surely these are matters of fact, not opinion or journalistic guesswork. Again, why is it so hard to come up with an answers that won't be contradicted within a few months? I know science works by trial and error, but there must be sufficient data on the above issues by now to come up with an authoritative and generally accepted judgment.

  2. Apologies for the odd stray comma. The blogspot comments system sucks.