"There's a need to reframe public health activity as stewardship that protects people. We need to emphasise the advantages of the strong state, the state that protects," he told the conference. But the public health community, delving into alien territory, acknowledges it needs some help from the country's top advertising brains in coming up with catchy counter-phrases.Yup, some clever ad-men to help them come up with ways of marketing the term ninny-state, that's just the ticket.
And so I found it pretty damned funny when Doug Sellman opened his latest salvo against Roger Kerr in today's Christchurch Press by calling Kerr a proponent of the ninny state, then went on to whine about alcohol industry advertising campaigns. So it's ok for Sellman's bunch to look for ad-men to help them with their propaganda, in addition to the millions spent already by governments on public health campaigns demonizing alcohol, but it's not ok for the alcohol industry to advertise their products? Interesting.
They really do need some better branding though. The term "ninny state" does not Google very well at all. The first hits I get on it suggest the term is far more used to describe the implementation of nanny state policies by ninnies, or when the objects of nanny state attention so internalize the preaching that they start advocating it themselves (ninnies then being the micro to the nannies' macro); articles going back to 2005 have it as an alternative description of paternalistic government policies.
It's doubly funny when Sellman implies civilization itself is at stake when "ninnies" advocate rolling back his preferred regulations:
These democratically agreed restrictions and controls are what many of us refer to as "civilisation", the result of 200 years of social development in Western democracies.Recall, of course, that very good argument can be made that the brewing of alcohol helped give rise to "civilization" thousands of years ago. Personally, I'd put modern civilization as going back a bit farther than two hundred years in the West and I'd note the rather decent contributions made in the mid-East a thousand years ago (and also a couple thousand years prior to that) and in China going even farther back, but that's a bit beside the point; Eurocentrism is the least of Sellman's problems.
Sellman says that Kerr's argument consists of naught but cobbled-together assertions about alcohol that ignore his preferred "facts" about alcohol. Of course, Sellman isn't exactly above ignoring facts he finds inconvenient. He says Kerr ignores that there are 700,000 "heavy drinkers" in New Zealand. Well, there's good reason to ignore that number: it's pure nonsense. Utter rubbish. The only way to get that number is by counting up any woman whose consumption totals more than 20 grams of alcohol per day on average and any man whose consumption exceeds 40 grams. That's less than 2 pints of standard 5% beer for a bloke, and less than a pint for a lady. Complete nonsense. The only measure on which it can start making sense is if health is the only thing that anyone anywhere values. The very best existing evidence suggests that mortality risk is minimized for men somewhere around one standard drink per day and for women somewhere around half that, but moderate drinkers start facing increased health risk, relative to teetotalers, at around 25 grams per day for women and just over 40 grams per day for men. So Sellman's "heavy drinkers" are folks who have just barely started drinking at levels where they see increased risk relative to non-drinkers.
But let's stick with Sellman here and have health as the only permissible goal. The very best evidence suggests that overall mortality risk is minimized at consumption of a bit over half a standard drink per day (average for men and women), and yes these numbers have never-drinkers separated from former drinkers as reference group. Relative to these very moderate drinkers, teetotalers have about a 16% increased risk of death. Should we be forcing non-drinkers to take their daily dose and whinge endlessly about the risks of under-drinking? If not, then the 16% increased risk isn't worth worrying about, right? If it's only risks over 16% that are worth worrying about, mortality risk (relative to teetotalers) is only 16% higher for folks drinking just under 60 grams per day (eyeballing from the graph): the cutoff for "high risk" drinking for men. So why count men drinking more than 40 grams, Doug? Is it so you can get a bigger number? You should be careful: when the numbers get too big, folks start being a bit skeptical. And 700,000 heavy drinkers in a country of just over 4 million people is obviously nonsense. Most folks will run a mental tally of their friends, counting up the ones that would fit a common-sense notion of heavy drinking, and find 700,000 utterly implausible.
Contra-Sellman, New Zealand society is hardly "organized in such a way as to maximise heavy drinking and therefore alcohol profit." We have fairly high alcohol taxes in place already - taxes high enough to counterbalance any plausible external costs imposed by alcohol abusers; anti-alcohol public service announcements aren't exactly scarce; the police can lock folks up for being drunk and disorderly; you can't buy spirits at the supermarket; bartenders can be in legal trouble if they continue to serve obviously heavily drunk patrons.... We may not have your preferred set of heavy regulations, but things are hardly set up to maximize heavy drinking. It's hard to imagine the mindset that reckons the current slate of fairly restrictive alcohol regulations is the result of the government being entirely in the pocket of the alcohol lobby.
But the most irritating bit is Sellman's concluding comment:
Which state - "ninny" or "nanny" - is likely to encourage individual responsibility? The answer is neither. Highly restrictive "nanny state" families are prone to producing emotionally stunted children with no initiative, but laissez-fair "ninny state" families with no clear rules or regulations often produce out-of-control children. The answer, of course, lies in the middle ground.For Sellman, the state is parent, trying to bring up its citizen-children with just the right amount of freedom, with himself providing sage advice about where that sweet spot lies. What a ninny.
Update: Doug Sellman responds in comments, below.