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September 17, 2012 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Fitter, Happier, More Productive

Clamping Down On Sin To Create The Perfect You

“Eat 5+ a day!” “Exercise regularly!” “Drink responsibly!” “Smoking… Don’t even get us started!”

For many years, governments around the world have attempted to encourage individuals to be better, healthier versions of themselves. From the prohibition era to today’s anti-smoking witch-hunt, the arsenal of tools available to ruling powers, including legal, fiscal, and educational measures, have been employed to curb human vice, with varying levels of success. But when, and why, did optimal health become the goal that we are expected—and expect others—to reach? 

Righting our wrongs

From the mid-19th century until the early 20th century, a wave of temperance and teetotalism swept throughout the Western world. Prohibition movements, often led by protestants or linked with women’s suffrage groups, pushed for the outlawing of manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol, which was considered the root of all evil. In the United States, the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution introduced a nation- wide ban on public manufacture and sales of alcohol from 1920-1933. One effect was the reduction of alcohol consumption by half; another was to boost the growth of organised crime and power of groups such as the American mafia, who made a killing illegally distributing and selling to meet the huge demand for alcohol—a thirst that no law could quench.

Where outright banning led to bootlegging and moonshine, modern governments have employed more subtly persuasive measures to encourage citizens to choose healthier  lifestyle options. While John Key has said that it is “unlikely” that the Government will outright ban tobacco smoking, New Zealand’s relationship with the cigarette has been a rocky one. From the humble beginnings of banning TV and radio cigarette advertising in 1963, the government has outlawed sales of single cigarettes (1988); smoking in indoor public places (1990, 2004); tobacco sponsorship and signage in shops (1995), and, since July this year, the display of tobacco products in shops. Packets of cigarettes and tobacco are decorated with charming images of rotten teeth, and it seems that you can’t pass a bus-stop without reading that Scribe envies people that don’t smoke. With a further increase to tobacco excise duty and the possibility of plain packaging on the horizon, it seems that the Government is determined to leave no legal stone unturned in encouraging citizens to kick the habit.

In the face of such measures, many beleaguered smokers have pointed to unhealthy vices that do not face the same social stigma, such as unhealthy eating. The end of the golden age of fat and sugar, however, is just around the corner. In France, cigarette-style health warnings have adorned all advertising for rocessed, sweetened, or salted food and drinks since healthy eating legislation implemented the changes in 2007. That Snickers doesn’t seem nearly as satisfying when its gooey caramel centre is accompanied by the bold reminder, “For your health, avoid snacking between meals”. Italy, currently considering the implementation of a higher tax for manufacturers of drinks with added sugars, has also jumped on the better nutrition bandwagon.

An apple a day…

…Keeps the doctor away”, or so the age-old adage says. In a system of socialised healthcare, there is obvious reason for why governments are so determined to keep the doctor away: if we’re sick, we cost more.

In New Zealand, the estimated annual cost of smoking in terms of lost production due to early death or illness and related healthcare costs totals $1.7 billion. Estimates for alcohol abuse and obesity are similarly high; with these dirty habits racking up $4.9 billion and $300 million per year respectively.

But what about the value of the pleasure we might derive from these pursuits? There are obviously some benefits to smoking like chimneys, drinking like fish, and stuffing our faces, or these vices wouldn’t be so damn popular. Taken to an extreme, it could be fair to say that most people would rather pursue pleasure and ill-health and live for 40 years, than lead a life of gym-going, healthy eating and high work productivity and live for 80. Perhaps there is a social value of happiness and good humour to these vices that is too easily overlooked.


Long gone are the days when religious morality ruled our lives and laws. In the past thirty years, New Zealand has legalised prostitution and homosexuality, and looks set to allow same-sex marriage in the near future. As these anachronistic codes of morality fall by the wayside in the context of a modern, liberal, secular society, are we simply looking to the pages of Fitness Life instead of the Bible for a definition of what constitutes a good person?

In this modern age, where commandments and sins are not so black and white, the pursuit of good health seems to have become the new way to enlightenment. At the height of the prohibition era, alcohol was considered the ‘devil’s drink’ because it was inherently evil and its consumption would prevent drinkers from going to heaven. Today alcohol abuse is considered wrong because of the associated ‘sins’ of alcoholism and low productivity. The focus is no longer solely on the ‘vices’ themselves; rather, the idea of risking one’s health for pleasure seems to be the core of the wrongfulness.

As society shifts away from the church as the centre of community, the pursuit of good health for ourselves and others is treated as a new common cause. In the US, for example, Healthy Communities initiatives, which encourage populations to work together to identify and reduce health issues in their community, have been hailed as a return to the thriving civil society of yesteryear. “The principles of Healthy Communities,” notes the Association of Schools of Public Health in its Public Health Reports 2000, “compel citizens to view community challenges holistically.” Where the villagers once converged on the town hall to discuss how to keep prostitutes off the street corners, today they gather to debate how to keep donuts out of the pantry.

Whether it’s a matter of simply balancing the books or the pursuit of some moral code fit for the modern age, one thing’s for certain: as far as the Government’s concerned, the party’s over, folks! ▲


Creating Model Citizens

From 1915-1922 the government required all bottles of liquor to bear a skull and crossbones, in an effort to scare children and spread the idea that hard liquor was synonymous with death. Unfortunately, due to a human fascination with death and things that are “bad”, this plan backfired, and daring Icelanders soon began asking for “Black Death” over the counter. Today, Brennivin, a sort of Icelandic absinthe, is still colloquially known as Black Death.

In China’s Hubei province the government focussed on the tax revenue rather than health benefits of their cigarette tax, by encouraging citizens to smoke more in an effort to stimulate the economy. Fund-gathering measures included issu- ing local schools with smoking quotas for teachers, and fines for officials who failed to meet targets.

Illinois, USA
A 6.25 per cent tax applies to candy, but sugary foods are only considered candy if they don’t include flour. By extension of this logic, Milky Way bars are only for treat-time, but Twix bars are a regular food, so eat them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner!


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