Addicted to Public Health Activism

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The huge anti-smoking establishment remains mostly ineffective at getting young people to avoid smoking and getting current smokers to quit. Much work remains. The question is, though: How much work?

Less than a decade ago, we would have been thrilled if Big Tobacco acknowledged that smoking was dangerous and addictive or gave in to demands to be more honest about the wide range of negative health consequences of smoking. If only they ran ads telling people that there are no safe cigarettes and that the safest thing to do is to quit, we fantasized.

But they are doing all this now -- and the question staring the anti-smoking community in the face is: Short of banning cigarettes, what is your endgame? Where do we go from here? Sure, there are major and important skirmishes to be fought, but at this point haven't we gotten a great deal of what we've been asking for from Big Tobacco? What other major steps could we ask for in a free society?

If there is no clear goal, defined by urgent public health imperatives, what is it that continues to drive the anti-smoking movement? The truth is that ideology and politics have become dominant; public health has taken a back seat. Misguided campaigns undermine the original and necessary goals of the movement, putting the credibility of the underlying mission at risk.

Similar Zealotry Among the Food Police

And now we see the phenomenon of redoubled effort without a clear aim happening again, in the food wars.

Obesity is a real public health threat in this country. However, some activists have chosen to blame fast food restaurants for poor choices made by too many Americans -- as if Burger King and McDonald's going out of business today would mean obese Americans easily getting back into shape and eating healthy, balanced diets. To plaintiffs' lawyers, fast food has become the next Big Tobacco. Lawsuits against Big Food are everywhere. And activist groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest have been demanding more nutrition information, right on the menu boards. To their credit, McDonald's is now rolling out plans to put such information right on the wrapper -- so you can't miss it. But are the food police happy? No, as Dr. Elizabeth Whelan points out in her op-ed in today's Washington Times.

There is a lesson to be learned here, whether from the tobacco control community's addiction to a game without an endgame or the food police's insatiable hunger for more government intervention in the private sector. When your objectives are met, you should ask whether it's time to refocus your efforts -- or whether you are being driven ever forward by some more cynical motivation: a non-public-health agenda, driven by an underlying anticapitalist ideology.

Sometimes, the public health arena is a good venue for that ideology, which can help rein in bad actors. But when a public health mission has been accomplished and activists keep on fighting big bad evil industry, the activists reveal themselves as rabble-rousers, abusing the public's good will toward the public health community.

Jeff Stier, Esq., is an associate director of the American Council on Science and Health (,