The good old BBC today managed to make me laugh. Not by means of one of their comedy shows, unfortunately (I find very few of their current offerings even remotely funny), but with their reporting via Victoria Derbyshire that loneliness is "as harmful as smoking". After a few sardonic chuckles, interspersed with one or two belly-laughs and a choking fit, I suddenly realised how utterly hilarious the whole "public health" obsession of the media has become. Then I became indignant. Then I became angry.
For years we have been told that smoking is one of the most (if not the VERY MOST) dangerous activities in the known universe; that smoking costs its practitioners their teeth, their hair, their skin, their health and decades of their lives; the health services uncountable gadzillions of whatever currency you might wish to consider; and society its very fabric. We have experienced decades of smokers being advised, nudged, nagged, bullied, coerced, forced and punished into relinquishing their habit. We have seen smokers exiled from the workplace, from all places of entertainment, from all forms of transport (even their own cars, in certain cases), from places of recreation (even parks and beaches), from shops and offices, pubs, clubs .... The list is endless, and attempts have often been made to exile smokers from streets and outdoor spaces - and even their own homes! A vast army of anti-smoking activists has been recruited and mobilised to stamp out the "menace" of people making an informed choice to consume a legal product in places that they have a legal right to be. Furthermore, the object of their choice, tobacco, has been hidden away from sight, subjected to advertising restrictions, emblazoned with pornographic imagery, and taxed to levels that make it more expensive than precious metals. Smoking must be dangerous indeed to warrant such intense scrutiny and prevention, one might think.
The dangers of smoking are apparently so very real that even something widely considered to have less than one twentieth of its risk must be regulated out of existence, and treated as if it were equally dangerous since it LOOKS a little like tobacco use! Vaping (the use of an electronic 'cigarette') involves none of the toxic substances derived from the combustion of tobacco other than nicotine. Nicotine is a relatively benign plant extract found in many vegetables, and widely used in pharmaceutical products, including Nicotine Replacement Therapy used to "treat" smokers and wean them off their addiction to - errm - nicotine! Vaping thus offers smokers a reduced-harm alternative to smoking that has already served to convert around three million UK smokers to non-smoker status, yet vapers are no more welcome in most places than are smokers. The inference here is, of course, that smoking is so very dangerous that even something at least 95 per cent safer is too dangerous to allow informed consumers to do it legally in a place where they have a legal right to be!
Almost anything that one wishes to promote or condemn can now be subjected to the smoking comparison test. Not so long ago we were told that sitting was as harmful to the health as smoking. Sugar, fat, fast food, gambling, alcohol, soft drinks and meat have similarly been condemned as "as bad as smoking". Today it was the turn of loneliness, the Beeb displaying a banner across the screen to that effect. There followed a long discussion about the costs to the health service, the cost to society, and the inevitable calls for action by the government, the setting up of a 'strategy' and, of course, funding to tackle the scourge of loneliness. That set me thinking. What form would such a strategy take? Well, the war on tobacco gives a few pointers as to how it might develop .....
A large number of so-called 'charities' will be formed, each one vowing to end loneliness in one community or another, and each vying for funding from the public to further their aims. The NHS will threaten to withhold routine treatment to any patient who admits to being lonely. Prisoners and mental health patients will not be allowed to be lonely, so will have to share their cells whether they like it or not. Loneliness will not be permitted in public places, so no unaccompanied person will be allowed into cinemas, pubs, clubs, sporting venues, shops and offices. Standing alone in the street will become an offence. People living alone will be required to have curtains at their windows so that the children are protected from seeing loneliness. Lonely Hearts clubs will be required to have obscured windows for the same reason. It will become illegal to have single-occupancy dwellings, so bed-sits will be closed down. Taxes will be levied on anyone living alone, and the revenues used to provide social meeting places. No single people will be allowed in social housing. Anyone without at least one close friend will be encouraged to take part in social activities. Loneliness cessation clinics with trained advisers will be required at all GP's surgeries, and doctors will be required to offer counselling and suitable medication to anyone they think may be lonely. Driving alone in a vehicle with more than one seat will become a road traffic offence, as might travelling in a vehicle without a child on board.
In order to lessen the dangers of loneliness, it is clearly essential that everyone has at least one close friend or relative. At a rough estimate, having 20 close friends or relatives should make life safer by some 95 per cent. Unfortunately, this harm-reduction approach may not be allowed (see the reference to vaping above). Five per cent safety is still not safe enough, it seems. So we must expect regulations mandating standards for all social gatherings.
Young people will need to be protected against the chance of seeing anything that looks even similar to loneliness, of course, so no theatre production or film likely to be seen by children can ever have less than two actors on view at any time. "Robinson Crusoe" must be taken off school library shelves. All children's cycles must be designed for tandem use. Football rules will have be modified so that there are two goalkeepers for each team. Stand-up comedians will all be required to become double acts.
One could go much further with this scenario, but it could lead to madness. Perhaps it already has. But it's not MY madness; it's that of people who have decided that they know better than the rest of us what is for our own good - and have found a route to imposing their views. It is neo-puritanism, coupled with fascism, with a great deal of fanaticism. And it's becoming a sick joke for, if loneliness is as bad for you as smoking, then just how bad is smoking - really? No wonder it makes me angry!