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Patronizing is better than curing

What happened?

Last week, the Dutch State Secretary for Health, Welfare and Sport, Paul Blokhuis presented a so-called “prevention agreement”. It entails (voluntary) agreements between the ministry, business and societal organizations (e.g. in healthcare and education) to eradicate smoking and reduce problems of obesity and alcohol abuse. Together, the agreed-upon measures are expected to lead to healthier lifestyles and prevent various (costly) diseases. The agreement was met with mixed emotions; the National Institute for Public Health (RIVM) warned that the agreement was not sufficient to meet its own ambitions, while others (e.g. the tobacco industry) have denounced it as patronizing and another sign that the government is increasingly interfering with our personal lives.

What does this mean?

Growing amounts of data have provided undeniable proof of the detrimental effects of certain lifestyles to our health and environment. For policy makers, it has therefore become impossible to ignore these insights. In addition, these insights and the resulting measures resonate with the ways in which people are increasingly holding each other accountable (e.g. on social media) for all sorts of questionable behavior and (supposed) moral mishaps in all walks of life (e.g. mom shaming). At the same time, “elitist” ideas about the good life clearly contradict values and norms held by large swaths of society. From that perspective, the upheaval caused by this agreement is only one of many manifestations of the growing socio-economic and cultural divide in Western nations. This is true for the Dutch debates over Black Pete and vegan Christmas dinners as well as the “Yellow Vest” protests in France.

What’s next?

Over time, traditional science and the rise of the sensor-based economy will provide us with increasingly fine-grained insights into the consequences of our individual and collective behavior and, as a result, more practices will be declared unethical. Digital systems will also help to calculate (and settle) more exactly the societal costs of our behavior and could, eventually, lead to something like a social credit system, in which individual citizens are held accountable for their (un)ethical behavior. Debates such as these, in the realm of lifestyles and health and increasingly in relation to the environment, will therefore continue and are likely to escalate further in the foreseeable future.