Our new Nanny State? The Senate inquiry into tobacco, alcohol, and bicycle helmet laws

New Yorkers’ had a Nanny. Do Australians have one too?

Earlier this month, Senator David Leyonhjelm announced aSsenate inquiry into legislative and policy measures introduced to restrict personal choice “for the individual’s own good,” including laws related to tobacco, e-cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, bicycle helmets, and film classification.

Leaving to one side the irony of a government inquiry into government’s unreasonable interference in our lives, many of the products to be considered by the inquiry are of central concern to public health. Smoking remains Australia’s largest preventable cause of death and disease, responsible for some 15,000 deaths, and costing Australia $31.5 billion in social and economic costs annually. Alcohol is linked to over 60 different health conditions, and accounts for around 3430 deaths per year.

Public health advocates call for a strong government response to these health problems, because preventive measures are more cost-effective than treatment, and because legislative and policy measures work.

Laws and regulations concerned with restricting the sale or promotion of cigarettes and alcohol are often seen as examples of the “Nanny State” in action, i.e., unwanted government interference in what should be our own, freely-made choices. But it’s wrong to frame these measures simply as the state acting “for the individual’s own good.” Governments have a legitimate interest in ensuring population health, and in preventing the healthcare costs associated with alcohol and tobacco consumption. So too do we, as taxpayers.

Governments also act a check on the powerful corporate interests that have a profound influence on our drinking, smoking, and eating habits. We might as well ask, why isn’t there an inquiry into Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol, and their impact on our freedom to live healthy, productive lives?

It’s possible for governments to overstep their boundaries, and to introduce measures that are overly paternalistic and completely out of step with community needs. But by adopting the prejudicial language of “personal choice” the Senate inquiry seems to have closed itself off already to the kind of useful debate that we might have about the role of the modern state in protecting population health.

Perhaps the inquiry should consider a new collection papers published in the journal Public Health under the heading “Who’s afraid of the Nanny State? Freedom, regulation, and public health.” This special issue explores and unpacks the meaning of the Nanny State rhetoric so beloved by Senator Leyonhjelm, drawing upon work by academics from a variety of disciplines. It offers new ways to conceptualise the role of the state, and highlights the vast array of tools available to governments when acting to protect public health.

Don’t be fooled by the rhetoric. Laws and policies on bicycle helmets, cigarettes, and alcohol save lives. And they do so in a much less intrusive way than chemotherapy for lung cancer, a liver transplant, or surgery for traumatic brain injury.