Some health campaigners are now talking about an “endgame” for tobacco. They’ve moved on from trying to cut deaths from smoking, and believe they’re now within a few years of being able to eliminate tobacco completely. This isn’t just unrealistic to the point of being delusional; it shows a frightening willingness to impose their beliefs on other people, and the same extremism is quickly expanding beyond tobacco control. Health activism is becoming health jihad, and that should worry us all.

Smoking tobacco is very bad for you. But people have been doing it for about 7,000 years. Anyone who believes it’s possible to create a tobacco-free world by 2040 is – there’s no kinder word for this – insane.

It’s not going to happen. British tobacco control expert Clive Bates has pointed out that global tobacco use, far from falling at a rate that makes this even slightly plausible, is still rising. Globally more than 1.2 billion people smoke; one adult in five.

Anti-tobacco zealots have lots of ideas on how to achieve the endgame. Some, like a total prohibition on tobacco, are proven failures. How well did alcohol prohibition work out in the 1920s? What about the “War on drugs” which has turned illegal narcotics into one of the top three global markets alongside oil and arms? Now imagine what would happen if tobacco was banned globally. Imagine the wealth and power of the illegal trade that would grow to serve the needs of 1.2 billion smokers.

Other ideas are just bizarre. Some of them want to ban everyone born after a certain date – they often pick 2000 – from ever buying tobacco. So in 2045 we’d have middle-aged men and women being asked for proof of age when they bought cigarettes, to make sure they really were born in 1999 and not 2001.

It’s bad enough now when you only need fake ID to buy beer for the after-prom party. Imagine needing it your whole life.

For years libertarians have warned of a slippery slope – that anti-tobacco laws will expand to other products. The zealots always deny this, claiming that tobacco is uniquely dangerous and there’s no need for the same laws elsewhere.

But, quietly, other activists are already calling for exactly that.

In New Zealand there’s a group called Fizz, and they hate soda. They hate it so much that they want it gone from New Zealand by 2025. The average New Zealander currently drinks about 140 pints of sodas a year, so it’s going to take some serious bullying to meet their target. Fizz seem to think it’s achievable though, because their next goal is “a Sugary drink free Pacific by 2030”.

Note how the 2030 target has quietly expanded to all sugary drinks. It’s not controversial to say that drinking too much soda is bad for you, but it’s not just soda these people want to ban. Fruit juice and iced tea are already in their sights too.

Their own “endgame” is for a ban on all added sugar in food. And that’s not going to happen.

If you really want to help people lead healthier lives you need to be pragmatic. Educate them on how to be healthy and they’ll probably follow some of your advice. Not all of it, of course, because they’ll decide some of the sacrifices you’re asking for aren’t worth it. But chances are they’ll follow some. They’ll be a bit healthier and live a bit longer, and you’ll have done your job. But most people don’t want to completely give up chocolate, cakes and fruit juice. They see these things as adding to their quality of life, and health activists need to accept that.

If you dream about ending humanity’s 7,000-year love affair with tobacco by the time today’s first graders finish grad school, or you think a ten-year blitzkrieg of bans and taxes can rid the world of soda, you are no longer being pragmatic.

You have forgotten that other people are allowed to not share your goals. You have become a fundamentalist, like the people who shoot at Planned Parenthood clinics or throw Syrian gays off roofs. And you need to stop.

Image by Romana Klee and used under CC BY 2.0

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