16 September 2011

How regulated do we want to be?

New health laws may be in the offing. But just how far do we want our private lives to be regulated?


Health Minister Aaron Mot­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­soaledi hit the headlines this week with criticism of junk food advertising: “Minister targets junk food”.

He is also keen to ban all alcohol advertising.

Despite a feeling in some quarters that he might be tilting at the wrong windmills instead of concentrating on the crisis in hospitals, I admire the energy with which the Minister approaches his task. He’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves and get busy. It’s a refreshing change from some ministers who seem to do nothing but run up bills in fancy hotels.

I won’t be surprised if stringent new junk food advertising limits are introduced. Making laws is what politicians do best. But it raises a red flag for me: how far do we want our lives and the world around us to be controlled by a myriad of laws and caveats?

I must confess, as a non-smoker I enjoy what the anti-smoking laws have done. I am old enough to remember when some movie houses allowed smoking, and even teachers would stand at the front of the class with a Camel plain hanging off their lips. It was smelly, unpleasant and unhealthy to be subjected to second-hand smoke.

Since I don’t eat junk food, I probably wouldn’t notice or mind if there were fewer ads for burgers and fizzy drinks.

Yet it scares me to think that we so easily allow our individual freedom to be curtailed. Well, until the city of Cape Town tried to introduce bylaws to curtail all-night drinking. Then we were up in arms.

Where does it end?

Will laws prevent me from allowing my cat to sleep on the furniture on the grounds that it could shed hair and cause allergies?

Will my awkward attempts at wearing high heels be banned in case I twist my ankle?

Will the Minister aim to stop me from feeding my baby with formula because breastfeeding is preferable? (Oh hang on, that is already a distinct possibility).

I’m not sure what the answer is. If we were to scrap the smoking laws, for example, that would not improve my life. I would prefer, though, for education to be our first choice for changing people’s behaviour rather than banning things or over-zealous regulation.

I am not convinced that introducing more bans is going to make us healthier as a nation. We don’t necessarily follow the laws that are already in place for our own health or safety (stand on any street corner and count the people talking on their cellphones while driving – sometimes with a cigarette in the other hand!)

There’s a very fine line being walked here, between interfering in personal choice, and making our society a healthier one.

(Adele Hamilton, Health24, September 2011)


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