Opinion: Daily Journal

The Tyranny of Public Health

RALEIGH – Some years ago a friend and former colleague of mine, Jacob Sullum of Reason magazine, wrote an excellent book entitled For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health. Here’s the Amazon.com link.

In addition to being a unique and fascinating look at the smoking-rights debate, Sullum’s book also delighted me in its account how the field of public health has evolved. The modern movement began at the turn of the century as new medical insights, scientific discoveries, even engineering innovations allowed officials to address long-standing problems with sanitation, water quality, and communicable diseases.

Public health is a legitimate function in a free society as long as it is focused on coping with externalities. Like if I stop you on the street to say that my stagnant pond is the breeding ground for the disease-carrying mosquitoes that are biting your children and, by the way, I have cholera.

Unfortunately, public health bureaucrats have long strayed from this necessary function to meddle in all sorts of areas in which they, an their government paymasters, have no business. For example, anti-gun forces have preposterously tried to make gun control a public health issue, as if it were akin to controlling the bubonic plague. Anti-smoking forces not only sought to combat second-hand smoke in public offices (maybe justified) but also in private offices, private means of transportation, shopping malls, and restaurants (never justified, maybe evil).

Now the public health establishment is turning its eye to, believe it or not, land-use policy. According to a report in The News & Observer of Raleigh, some nitwits at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are teaming up with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Friday to broadcast a national conference on the public health implications of urban sprawl.

Click here to read more about it.

The public health folks argue that sprawl is within their purview because it helps to cause obesity, asthma, and other diseases. Frankly, they are in way over their heads on this issue, missing such obvious points as the relative safety of suburban communities and the extent to which higher-density living would cause more air pollution, not less. But I’m not even going to grant the underlying premise that it’s any of their business how fat I am, whether it’s because I drive an SUV to the suburbs or because I watch too much Star Trek and The History Channel.

“One of the things we hope to achieve with this broadcast is that public health professionals will initiate a dialogue with city planners and transportation planners,” said Donna E. Davis, director of the program that organized the conference for UNC. “They all need to be at the same table.” Never has anyone made a more honest, and more scary, statement.