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The smoking ban was always going to be the thin end of the wedge

Rod Liddle is appalled by Sir Liam Donaldson’s deployment of statistics in the hope of making it harder to have a drink. A surrealist would struggle to keep up with such campaigns against our human pleasures

18 March 2009

12:00 AM

18 March 2009

12:00 AM

Rod Liddle is appalled by Sir Liam Donaldson’s deployment of statistics in the hope of making it harder to have a drink. A surrealist would struggle to keep up with such campaigns against our human pleasures

Iatrogenesis accounts for the deaths of an estimated 72,000 British people every year — or slightly more than the combined numbers of those feckless people dying from smoking, drinking and being very fat. I suppose you could call it the silent killer; there are no government campaigns to educate the public about its lethality. When lists are published showing the top killer diseases it is never present, although it is the third most common cause of death. The Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, is not forever haranguing us about how we should avoid causes of iatrogenesis. I know of no medical pressure groups staffed by starch-shirted harridans screeching at us about the problem, nor taxes designed to prevent us from contracting it. And yet it is very easy to avoid iatrogenesis; all you need to do is never visit a hospital or a doctor, and indeed, if a doctor should approach you in a public place, then roll up your newspaper and swat him away, much as if he were a malarial mosquito, while holding your other hand tightly over your nose. Iatrogenesis is the proper name for death by doctors. The latest figures I’ve seen, through the conduit of the Royal College of Physicians, is the one quoted above — a quite remarkable 72,000 deaths per year. Not all of them are the result of premeditated murder, of course; the overwhelming majority of victims are dispatched through pure incompetence or negligence. I am not sure if the figure includes those who die from infections generated in hospitals — my suspicion is, it does not. In which case you can add another 8,000 to the total, making a nice round figure of 80,000. Astonishing really, isn’t it?

If I were as promiscuous with statistics as is the Chief Medical Officer, I would tell you that, on the latest available figures, doctors are twice as bad for your health as lung cancer and substantially more deadly than a stroke. Sir Liam Donaldson is very fond of waving his figures around so I assume he’d approve of my methodology. Any normal person would argue that I was talking rubbish, that such figures have to be seen in context. Sir Liam, though, doesn’t really do context. He once warned that the death toll in Britain for bird flu would most likely be 50,000 but that a figure of 750,000 was ‘not impossible’. The actual death toll proved to be, uh, nil. He’s been waving more figures around this last week in support of his wish to see a minimum 50 pence charge per unit of alcohol in order to combat the effects of ‘passive drinking’. I used the phrase ‘passive drinking’ in an article four or five years ago: I thought I’d made it up and was being very bloody satirical. But these days real life out-satirises all satire. Sir Liam has said that his 50p minimum tariff will mean 3,393 fewer alcohol-related deaths per year in Britain. Aw, come on Sir Liam — surely it’s 3,394? There will also be 97,900 fewer hospital admissions. Nothing like a few good, precise numbers, is there?


The government has initially booted his proposal into touch, supposedly humiliating the man — but you can bet your last Woodbine that we haven’t heard the last of it, despite its self-evident lack of logic. Because as Donaldson himself said: ‘I don’t mind being a football if a goal is scored in the end. I got a very hard time when I proposed smoke-free public places.’

And in that he is dead right; he knows, I suspect, that in the end there will be no evading his statistics, no matter how ludicrous, how devoid of context they may be. The Rubicon was crossed with the ban on smoking in public places (the government, and particularly Tony Blair and the then health secretary John Reid, was initially very wary of that, remember) — now, as I and many others warned at the time, all of our pleasurable human vices, the things we do to help us get by, are up for grabs.

There is not the slightest point in my colleague Charles Moore explaining patiently and eloquently on Question Time that taxation should be levied to match the government’s need rather than slapped down as a punishment against people who behave in a way in which Sir Liam, or Harriet Harman, or Gordon Brown, do not approve. For many years there has been an unjustifiable and criminal level of taxation on cigarettes, which the government claims — disingenuously — is a progressive social measure designed to stop people smoking. It did not do so; it just made people poorer and the Treasury richer. The die has been cast. Now, as we all expected, they have turned their attention to the consumption of alcohol — and those of you who enjoy the occasional tipple but do not smoke and were minded in the end to support the ban on smoking, well, this is what you have let yourselves in for. Smoking was always the thin end of the wedge. Drinking was always going to be next, followed very rapidly by punitive measures to stop you eating the sort of food that you enjoy. God knows what they will start on after that, but they’ll have a lot of fun with drinking before they are finished.

Nor will Liam let it lie, even when he gets his ludicrous tax. He will produce yet another bunch of statistics: if we stop people buying alcohol before seven o’clock in the evening, then 6,142 fewer people — including Mrs Ethel Scrubbs, aged 58, of Lumpenprole Lane, Batley — will die as a consequence of alcohol-related illnesses. There will be 172,000 fewer hospital admissions and 82,000 fewer accidents. Hell, perhaps we’ll see pubs forced to adopt drink-free areas, so that people who wish to live a healthy life can sip cranberry J2Os without the fear of being afflicted by passive drinking. I am straining, here, to find something more absurd and surreally humorous than what Sir Liam might actually do. It’s a struggle, and I’ve been easily outflanked before.

I suppose it is laudable that Sir Liam wishes to eradicate death from the world (except those deaths caused by iatrogenesis which, incidentally, rise every year). And from his various profiles Sir Liam comes across as a kindly and affable man. A bit like our traditional image of God, except with red hair. But I wish we could call time on him.


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