Saturday, April 30, 2011

Here come the WHO-crats. World Health Organization takes on chronic disease. But how? With research, medicine, and cures? Or with national, and now international, nanny-statism?

The Washington Post reports this morning on a World Health Organization (WHO) meeting in Moscow on public health, food, and lifestyle.   In the pages of the Post, the issues seem so clinical and laboratory-like.  But in reality, popular passions are certain to be provoked--and so popular sovereignty must once again be invoked.   

It's great to eat right and be healthy, but those who wish to eat wrong still have rights--and they will fight to preserve them.   As we shall see, new rules on what you can eat--that is to say, new rules on personal freedom--are coming.   And the Obama administration appears to be an eager participant into the next round of a restrictive rule-writing process.   Post reporter Will England sets it up: 

The World Health Organization focused for decades on infectious diseases, but now it’s putting non-communicable diseases near the top of its agenda. The fight against heart disease, diabetes, stroke, lung cancer and chronic respiratory disease may not seem as heroic as the struggle against smallpox or H1N1, but chronic illnesses account for 63 percent of deaths worldwide — 70 percent in the United States and 90 percent in Russia.

Important statistics, reminding us that the stakes are, indeed, high.   And then he adds these hopeful words about improving the quality and length of life:

“And these [chronic diseases] are preventable,” said Margaret Chan, director general of WHO, at a three-day series of meetings here this week devoted to chronic diseases. “People don’t have to suffer. People don’t have to die.”

OK, so far, so good.  The Serious Medicine argument is that health insurance, for example, is a lot less important to people than health itself.  It’s medical science we need, much more than healthcare finance.    And so just as we eliminated many killer infectious diseases in the last century, it would be a humanitarian achievement if we could eliminate many killer chronic diseases in the next century.  

But as the Post article makes clear, the WHO vision of better health for the future is driven more by politics than by science.   That is, the leaders of his new health push will be bureaucratic regulators, not disease-eradicators.   We also need medical science more than we need governmental red tape, however well-meaning that red-tape might seem to be.  

Indeed, as we keep reading the Post article, a disturbing pattern starts to appear.  We see much discussion--and real action--leading toward government regulation of human behavior, and little or nothing about the transformative or curative science.  It would be useful, for example, if leaders were focusing on better treatments and cures for diabetes or chronic respiratory disease.  And while of course such scientific research is occurring, it does not appear that such scientific research is anywhere close to the top of WHO’s international agenda.  

Instead, we see what appears to be nanny-statism--not only at the national level, but also at the international level.  That is, WHO and various governments and NGOs are coming together to start passing restrictions on diet and lifestyle and behavior patterns.    Education about health is fine, so long as its genuine, fact-based education, provided by an unbiased trustworthy source.  Freedom means freedom, but freedom can always be better informed by the truth.

Indeed, many companies are heavily involved in good-hearted public education.  One such company is Dole Foods.  Inspired by the visionary leadership of owner David Murdock, Dole has created the Dole Nutrition Institute, which spends many millions each year in pro bono efforts to inform Americans, especially, the young, about the benefits of healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle.   To be sure, Dole is in the healthy foods business to begin with, but the Nutrition Institute's health-promotion  efforts reach far beyond what Dole sells.   Indeed, Murdock has personally endowed an entire research campus in North Carolina, dedicated to public-spirited research on nutrition and health.

Murdock and the Dole Nutrition Institute provide a sterling example of education for health.   And their efforts are all voluntary; we can note that neither Murdock nor the Dole Nutrition Institute, has any power to make anybody do anything.

Yet as we know, government operates on a different principle--the principle that if persuasion doesn't work, there's always the option of coercion.

As we have learned here in the US on other issues, government-funded “education” has a way of turning into hectoring, taxing, and mandating.  Indeed, even research itself can be skewed, in the name of driving such research to a pre-designated conclusion.  That has been, for example, the twisted and coercive fate of much "research" and “education” about global warming and climate change.   Without attempting to delve into the science at all, suffice it to say that the US government got way ahead of what was scientifically demonstrable, to say nothing of politically feasible.   Indeed, the backlash against climate change should serve as a sobering warning sign to would-be food czars.   

And while the science of, say, the dangers of some lifestyle habits, such as smoking or snuff, are completely settled, it's still the case that tobacco users have rights--even if not everyone agrees.

So we can only wonder what future policy directives will be coming out of WHO and lesser entities in the months and years to come.   Here’s more from the Post report:

No tobacco and less sugar, fat and especially salt are WHO’s top targets; reducing alcohol consumption and increasing exercise are right behind. Those factors alone account for 25 million of the 36 million deaths attributable to chronic diseases annually, according to WHO, and place a huge economic burden on families and nations.  But a cigarette is not like a microbe: It can’t be eliminated by a doctor. Fighting chronic diseases requires political decisions — in areas as disparate as finance, regulatory policy, agriculture, education and trade — and the will to see them through.

OK, so we are starting to see a pattern here: The WHO meeting seems to be a chance for international officials to gather together work through their whole policy arsenal; as the Post piece says, “in areas as disparate as finance, regulatory policy, agriculture, education and trade.”

A cynic would say, here’s a big opportunity for big government to get a lot bigger, as regulators, inspired by this Moscow conference, return to their home countries full of newfound zeal. 

And once again, we can note: Even in that litany of governmental tasks mentioned above, there was no mention of medical research.  What if we could develop a cure for diabetes?  Or a foolproof appetite suppressant?  Or some other outside-the-box approach that we might not have even thought of yet?   Wouldn’t such a techno-fix be an easier way to solve some of these public health issues, thus obviating the need for heavy-handed regulation?  Sure it would.  Which leads one to wonder: Could it be that those WHO officials and their allies are uninterested in scientific transformation precisely because they are more interested in social regulation?   That is, the WHO-crats would rather have the bureaucratic regulation (imposed, of course, by people like them), than the scientific transformation (achieved, most likely, by scientists they barely know). 

And in fact, in the hands of bureaucrats education always seems to turn into regulation; as the Post article suggests, the Moscow conference is just the beginning.  That is, the corporations will get their say, and then the bureaucrats will take it from there.  

Unhealthy food, and what to do about it, was the most sensitive topic at the gathering here. Representatives of PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Nestle joined the discussions after a decision by WHO to allow the big international food concerns a voice as the organization prepares an agenda for a U.N. meeting in September.

So we can expect that in that next meeting, in tandem with the UN General Assembly this September,  we will see a lollapalooza of new decrees and rules.   UN pronouncements don’t have force in the US, of course--except when they do; there’s no shortage of internationalist-minded activists and even jurists in the US who think that it is their job to “harmonize” American policy and culture with that of the rest of the world.   

For her part, WHO director-general Chan jumps in with her own view on the future.  Speaking of voluntary industry actions: “Self-imposed voluntary action is a good first step.”   And if voluntary action is the "first step," what, we might ask, is the second step?    For her part, US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, also in Moscow, agreed that companies ought to get the first opportunity to do the right thing.  But then she added, “there’s definitely a role for regulation.” 

So stay tuned for a fight on the US homefront.   Fighting off the excesses of the WHO-crats and their US allies will be another mission for libertarians, tea partiers, and all those who think that people should have freedom of choice--even the freedom of choice to make mistakes.   Yes, there are a many ways to weave personal responsibility into society--variable pricing for health insurance is one of many possible incentivizers--but there will be a backlash against overweening regulation that crimps freedom.  This is America.  Here, the people rule. 

Healthy eating is good, and informed consumer choice is good, too, as part of our overall commitment to personal freedom and individual dignity and autonomy.   But if the Affordable Care Act of 2010, aka "Obamacare," is an indication, any idea that paternalistic public health officials think is a good idea--will soon be a mandatory idea.

And so, once again, the American people will have to rise up and defend their rights.  Including their right to do things that Washington DC doesn't approve of.   Such populist rebellions have happened before, even very recently.  And now it looks as if another such upsurge is coming.  


  1. WHO are they?
    What's Al Gore's position on all this? ;-)
    "Bureaucratic Regulators" isn't that just another phrase for short sightedness or the neurosurgicaly challenged!
    Reducing alcohol consumption?
    Ok, lets start with Russia; it would scare the bjesus out of China if they went sober:-))
    WHO director-general Chan?
    Is she related to Mao? Sounds like she is.

    Well written Jim. But I don't like to read "psych" charts!
    There's a lot of sick people out there big guy!

  2. I am in kind of a conundrum in the way I want to evaluate Michelle Obama's program of healthy eating. I am now 60 and having started a very strict healthy lifestyle and daily exercise program at 40 I have never been sick, operated on, have a full head of hair and have not lost much physical strength in 20 years. Although I fully believe in Ms. Obama's theory, hook line and sinker, in keeping with our country's determination to maintain free expression I am opposed to force feeding any agenda to our citizens in instances where typical choice applies. It is a shame because she is right and I will testify to the healthy lifestyle and exercise. This is America, a democracy and I believe that if people want to eat bad food an remain sedentary, they will be shaving time but they have a right to do it.

  3. This whole mess happened once before a hundred years ago when the nannies decided to make alcohol illegal in the United States and we had the good sense to turn our backs on the fools who think they have a right to turn us into farm animals to be fattened up and sheared as they see fit. Let's hope that we collectively had the good sense to do it again.

  4. This serious medicine strategy describes all regarding the World Health Organization. The World Health Organization focused for decades on infectious diseases, but now it’s putting non-communicable diseases near the top of its agenda.

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