Monday, March 10, 2008

The nasty history of supermarket-bashing

Nobody would label today's critics of big chainstores as `Nazis'. Yet their arguments bear a striking resemblance to those of the Third Reich. Comment from Britain:

Nothing better symbolises the strange, topsy-turvy state of politics in the twenty-first century than the ongoing hostile campaign against supermarkets and those of us who shop in them.

In recent years in Britain, the big four supermarkets, in particular Tesco, have been condemned for producing `clone towns', reducing consumer choice, selling unethical goods and strangling competition for smaller traders. Amongst some middle-class commentators, and increasingly amongst the political elite, too, supermarkets have come to symbolise everything that is heinous and disgusting about modern-day life. Supported by very sympathetic and powerful media outlets, including the London Evening Standard, the Guardian and Channel 4, the supermarket-bashers may soon win the backing of officialdom in their effort to hold back supermarkets and limit the benefits they bring to millions of people.

The UK Competition Commission has put forward recommendations to discourage supermarket chains from developing local monopolies and forcing smaller stores out of business. An ombudsman will oversee and regulate the relationship between Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda and Morrisons and their suppliers. It is not just the shareholders and top managers of the supermarket giants who should be worried: these latest interventions could have negative ramifications for millions of shoppers, too. The Commission's ombudsman is expected to have the power to fine companies for introducing sharp price cuts, or for charging new products for shelf-space and `pay-to-stay' fees. Large retailers who do not meet competition standards could have their planning applications refused (1).

The regulatory measures are justified as an attempt to stimulate more competition in areas where particular chains have been dominant. The Competition Commission wants to protect local shops and allow them to exercise greater retail muscle. The problem, however, is that since independent retailers do not have an extensive division of labour, and are weak in their ability to produce economies of scale, the costs of their shelf-stacked commodities will often be higher than in supermarkets. If local shops are guaranteed a monopoly in residential areas, it will mean that a family's grocery bill will increase - potentially by a lot.

In short, it seems that the Competition Commission wants to beef up the profit margins of small traders by driving down the living standards of ordinary consumers. Today's champions of small trade, such as Andrew Simms of the new economics foundation and author of Tescopoly, will no doubt argue that such tough measures are necessary to promote `community cohesion' and protect `the local environment' from rampaging supermarkets - yet whatever garbled language they use to cheer the Competition Commission's restrictions on Tesco and the rest, there is no avoiding the reality that everyday consumers will be forced to pay more so that local retailers can prosper (2).

The mass of consumers has been put in this position before. Many of the Competition Commission's recommendations on supermarkets bear a striking resemblance to those established in Nazi Germany during the 1930s. Of course, shouting `fascists' is a shrill, cheap shot in contemporary debate, designed falsely to discredit political opponents as being beyond the pale. Comparing people to 'the Nar-zis' is also fraught with ahistorical inaccuracies: it is a lazy device in cowardly contemporary debate. Nobody would seriously suggest that today's critics of supermarkets are anywhere near to being Nazis. And yet. there is a peculiar paradox that while Nazi Germany is held up as a symbol of evil today, many of the core ideas and beliefs associated with Nazism, such as the mystical worship of nature and hostility towards Enlightenment modernity, are increasingly commonplace amongst today's radical middle classes. And nowhere is that clearer than in their hang-ups about supermarkets.

The historian and authority on the Third Reich, Professor Richard J Evans, traces the initial electoral base of Hitler's Nazi Party in the Mittelstand - the `people who were neither bourgeois nor proletarian' but who `should have a recognised place in society'. As Evans explains: `Located between the two great antagonistic classes into which society had become divided, they represented people who stood on their own two feet, independent, hard-working, the healthy core of the German people. It was to people like these - small shopkeepers, skilled artisans running their own workshops, self-sufficient peasant farmers - that the Nazis had initially directed their appeal.' (3)

As the Nazi Party attracted considerable numbers of the Mittelstand to its programme, physical attacks, boycotts and discrimination against department and chain stores started to increase. Such street-level chainstore-bashing initiatives `were quickly backed by a Law for the Protection of Individual Trade passed on 12 May 1933', writes Evans. In a similar way to the current recommendations put forward by the Competition Commission, in Nazi Germany `chain stores were forbidden to expand or open new branches'. Towards the end of 1933, the Nazi Party introduced further moves along the lines currently outlined by the Competition Commission: `Department and chain stores were prohibited from offering a discount of more than three per cent on prices, a measure also extended to consumer co-operatives.' (4)

As the representatives of the embittered middle classes, the Mittelstand, the Nazis initially made sure that both big business and working-class interests were subordinated in order to boost the living standards and prestige of the small shopkeeper and artisan. Of course, Britain in 2008 is clearly not in the grip of a deep economic and social crisis in the way that German society was in the 1920s and 1930s. And no doubt there are small traders in Britain today who have lost out to the growth of supermarkets, though the evidence indicates that the retail market is big enough to accommodate both large and small retailers. Yet German officialdom's attack on supermarkets in the 1930s looks eerily like British officialdom's attack, backed by our own Mittelstand, in 2008.

What seems to aggravate middle-class commentators and campaigners most of all is that supermarkets put so many goods within the price range of millions of people, the mass of the population. For them, it seems an outrage that even `the lowest of the low', the poorest of families, can enjoy roast chicken for a mere 2 pounds or buy a pair of jeans for o3, not to mention the fact that even those on low disposable incomes can afford a flight to Prague these days courtesy of numerous no-frills airlines. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Eton-educated cook and organic farmer-cum-campaigner, alongside numerous broadsheet columnists, argues that the supermarket's cutting of prices `undermines the true value' and `meaning' of commodities (5). In truth, it seems that cheaply available goods undermine these campaigners' own sense of moral worth and social status.

Looked at in this way, it seems that attacking supermarkets represents the cutting edge of the middle classes' familiar aspiration to have a `recognisable place in society', away from hoi polloi and their mass-produced tastes. At the same time, hostility towards new housing developments, lionising nature over modernity - and organic over industrialised farming, animals over human wellbeing - are other mechanisms which middle-class radicals affect to appear more benign and, in Fearnley-Whittingstall's words, more `caring' - especially against the sensibilities of `vulgar modernists'. It is not Nazi-mongering to point out that such ideas were once the solid bedrock upon which the Third Reich was founded, which won admiration from middle-class sections of society both within and without Germany; that is simply the reality (6).

Many aspects of German Nazism can be seen as a form of `peasant ideology'. The `Blood and Soil' ideas of Walter Darr,, for instance, which were hugely influential on Nazi thinking, considered humans to be best suited to a simple existence living close to the land, and argued that urbanisation and industrialisation were so decadent and corrupt that `stultifying cities' would weaken a nations' `racial stock'. Darr,'s ideas also influenced the Nazis' belief in the virtues of Kultur, which embodied the folk traditions and craft skills `over the essentially empty products of Western civilisation' (7). Does this sound familiar? Is it really so very different from the complaints of countless commentators today, about mass-produced commodities, the destruction of nature by greedy mankind, and the emptiness of Western civilisation?

The `peasant ideology' also fuelled the idea of Lebensraum -- a space in which the German people could assume their proper, peasant existence. Such a rural idyll for the Germans could only be achieved, of course, by a drastic and forced reduction in the level of Europe's population. Today, too, whether it is the Optimum Population Trust (supported by Jonathon Porritt) or mainstream environmentalists who call for social policies that encourage less breeding, especially in Africa, there is a consensus that there are `too many people' in the world and that a massive reduction in human numbers, preferably through family-planning but possibly through a natural disaster, should be welcomed (8). Of course, none of these population campaigners is calling for a genocide; but they do passionately believe that the Earth is overcrowded.

The social forces driving the re-emergence of these destructive ideas are very different from those that existed in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Disenchantment with modernity and modern life has been an undercurrent in Western societies for 30 or 40 years now. Yet never have such ideas seem so accepted, so mainstream, and so consequential. Where middle-class supporters of small trade and organic farming once had to fight hard for a hearing, trying to make themselves heard over the clash of the `great antagonistic' classes, today the middle classes' strange ideas often seem to be the only ideas in town. Why?

The collapse of a century-old fight between the capitalist and working classes by the early 1990s pushed self-appointed middle-class radicals into the centre stage. So much so that their preoccupations and petty prejudices have steadily evolved into something approaching a `New Establishment', as Tory journalist and historian Max Hastings describes his chosen employers, the Guardian (9). It seems the middle classes have at last `found their place' in modern society, and they don't like what they see all around them.

Their old concerns - that the working masses are getting ideas above their station, that modernity is awful - are expressed in slightly different ways today. In the past, that fear and loathing of mass society was expressed against trade union militancy and working-class political organisations. In the 1970s, for instance, even though opinion-makers were not directly affected by union strikes at car manufacturing plants, for them it was still outrageous that `mere' car workers would not accept their place and get on with being exploited. The fact that the working classes could throw their weight around and put the political class under pressure angered them even more. Who did those oiks think they were?

The days of mass industrial unrest are long gone, of course, but that same exasperated question still haunts some commentators when they examine the modern world. Indeed, the development of a truly globalised mass economy has angered many because it has helped reduce commodity prices and raised ordinary people's living standards in the process. Such an historically unprecedented situation means that many working people enjoy the `good life' in ways that was once only available to the elites and the middle classes.

As a consequence, the old demarcations of social status and privilege are not as rigidly set in stone as they once were. That is why some middle-class radicals are determined to establish new demarcations to separate themselves from the mass of people. Hectoring on lifestyle choices, consumer habits and tastes is an artificial way of visibly underscoring class differences in society. In their screeching rejection of supermarkets and cheap flights abroad, and their lionising of rural idylls, many commentators are creating a new dividing line between the haves and have-nots - that is, those who have taste, and those who do not have taste.

The modernity-bashing radicals are not simply cranks on the fringes of society; they are increasingly respected and listened to by powerful decision-makers across the board. Not only have their nasty-minded complaints about housing prevented us from buying decent homes - now their anti-supermarket campaigns means we will soon be paying more for less groceries, too. Most of us can see that this is plain wrong. But for the opponents of supermarkets, undoubtedly this is the Reich way forward.


Something else that the excellent article above could have mentioned is that item 16 of the (February 25th., 1920) 25 point plan of the National Socialist German Workers Party (written by the leader of that party, Adolf Hitler) also demanded the abolition of big stores and their replacement by small businesses. Just the usual Leftist hatred of success in others, of course

'No' to a Referendum

The British Parliament's vote last night not to stage a national referendum on the EU's new Lisbon Treaty might not, on its own, cost Gordon Brown the premiership whenever he finally faces the voters. But it will be added to the growing pile of evidence that he is more cautious and calculating a leader than many Britons would care to have in Number 10.

The crux of the parliamentary debate was whether the Lisbon Treaty, which Mr. Brown's Labour government supports, is tantamount to the failed EU constitution. The Prime Minister argues that it isn't and that he therefore isn't honor-bound to hold a popular vote, as Britain's three major political parties all pledged in 2005. Yet the reading of many -- including other European heads of government -- is that Lisbon is essentially the same as the constitution that died in the ballot boxes of France and Holland nearly three years ago.

Britain's referendum advocates had also focused on how the treaty will affect London's voting weight in Brussels and its national sovereignty -- vital topics, but ones that allowed Mr. Brown to give the debate a technical tint. It allowed him to argue that "opt-outs" from certain treaty provisions, such as on law enforcement, sufficiently guarded U.K. sovereignty. Most legal scholars couldn't say for sure.

In yesterday's debate, Conservative leader David Cameron fingered the thread that ties this issue to others that have plagued Mr. Brown since he succeeded Tony Blair in June. "We have the courage of our convictions and are sticking to that promise," Mr. Cameron told Mr. Brown in the Commons. "You have lost your courage."

That's easy for him to say, knowing he won't have to face other EU leaders at next week's summit. And to be fair, Paris and The Hague have also been unwilling to let their voters consider the new treaty after they voted down the constitution. But the Tory boss is right. What's really damning is that Mr. Brown seems to be afraid to take his case to the people.


Series of blunders turned the plastic bag into global villain

Scientists and environmentalists have attacked a global campaign to ban plastic bags which they say is based on flawed science and exaggerated claims. The widely stated accusation that the bags kill 100,000 animals and a million seabirds every year are false, experts have told The Times. They pose only a minimal threat to most marine species, including seals, whales, dolphins and seabirds.

Gordon Brown announced last month that he would force supermarkets to charge for the bags, saying that they were "one of the most visible symbols of environmental waste". Retailers and some pressure groups, including the Campaign to Protect Rural England, threw their support behind him.

But scientists, politicians and marine experts attacked the Government for joining a "bandwagon" based on poor science. Lord Taverne, the chairman of Sense about Science, said: "The Government is irresponsible to jump on a bandwagon that has no base in scientific evidence. This is one of many examples where you get bad science leading to bad decisions which are counter-productive. Attacking plastic bags makes people feel good but it doesn't achieve anything."

Campaigners say that plastic bags pollute coastlines and waterways, killing or injuring birds and livestock on land and, in the oceans, destroying vast numbers of seabirds, seals, turtles and whales. However, The Times has established that there is no scientific evidence to show that the bags pose any direct threat to marine mammals. They "don't figure" in the majority of cases where animals die from marine debris, said David Laist, the author of a seminal 1997 study on the subject. Most deaths were caused when creatures became caught up in waste produce. "Plastic bags don't figure in entanglement," he said. "The main culprits are fishing gear, ropes, lines and strapping bands. Most mammals are too big to get caught up in a plastic bag."

He added: "The impact of bags on whales, dolphins, porpoises and seals ranges from nil for most species to very minor for perhaps a few species.For birds, plastic bags are not a problem either."

The central claim of campaigners is that the bags kill more than 100,000 marine mammals and one million seabirds every year. However, this figure is based on a misinterpretation of a 1987 Canadian study in Newfoundland, which found that, between 1981 and 1984, more than 100,000 marine mammals, including birds, were killed by discarded nets. The Canadian study did not mention plastic bags.

Fifteen years later in 2002, when the Australian Government commissioned a report into the effects of plastic bags, its authors misquoted the Newfoundland study, mistakenly attributing the deaths to "plastic bags". The figure was latched on to by conservationists as proof that the bags were killers. For four years the "typo" remained uncorrected. It was only in 2006 that the authors altered the report, replacing "plastic bags" with "plastic debris". But they admitted: "The actual numbers of animals killed annually by plastic bag litter is nearly impossible to determine." In a postscript to the correction they admitted that the original Canadian study had referred to fishing tackle, not plastic debris, as the threat to the marine environment. Regardless, the erroneous claim has become the keystone of a widening campaign to demonise plastic bags.

David Santillo, a marine biologist at Greenpeace, told The Times that bad science was undermining the Government's case for banning the bags. "It's very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags," he said. "The evidence shows just the opposite. We are not going to solve the problem of waste by focusing on plastic bags. "It doesn't do the Government's case any favours if you've got statements being made that aren't supported by the scientific literature that's out there. With larger mammals it's fishing gear that's the big problem. On a global basis plastic bags aren't an issue. It would be great if statements like these weren't made."

Geoffrey Cox, a Tory member of the Commons Environment Select Committee, said: "I don't like plastic bags and I certainly support restricting their use, but plainly it's extremely important that before we take any steps we should rely on accurate information. It is bizarre that any campaign should be endorsed on the basis of a mistranslation. Gordon Brown should get his facts right."

A 1968 study of albatross carcasses found that 90 per cent contained some form of plastic but only two birds had ingested part of a plastic bag.

Professor Geoff Boxshall, a marine biologist at the Natural History Museum, said: "I've never seen a bird killed by a plastic bag. Other forms of plastic in the ocean are much more damaging. Only a very small proportion is caused by bags." Plastic particles known as nurdles, dumped in the sea by industrial companies, form a much greater threat as they can be easily consumed by birds and animals.

Many British groups are now questioning whether a ban on bags would cost consumers more than the environmental benefits. Charlie Mayfield, chairman of retailer John Lewis, said that tackling packaging waste and reducing carbon emissions were far more important goals. "We don't see reducing the use of plastic bags as our biggest priority," he said. "Of all the waste that goes to landfill, 20 per cent is household waste and 0.3 per cent is plastic bags." John Lewis added that a scheme in Ireland had reduced plastic bag usage, but sales of bin liners had increased 400 per cent.


`Sexed-up' numbers should not always be accepted as science

By Mike Hulme (Mike Hulme is a professor in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia)

In the recent flurry of moves to ban plastic bags a frequently cited statistic is that more than 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die each year from entanglement in, or ingestion of, plastic bags. The original scientific study upon which this estimate relied actually attributed these deaths to fishing tackle in the oceans, not plastic bags. Yet the terms "100,000 marine deaths" and "plastic bags" now circulate happily through our public discourse, solidified as established fact.

But when is a fact a fact? Can facts change over time? And does it matter if they do? Science is instinctively referred to as the source and authenticator of facts such as the one cited above, and rightly so. Yet as this example shows, we need to be very careful about the veracity of the numbers we latch on to, and about what they signify. What may start out as a credible, yet qualified and provisional, scientific estimate may end up, either through distortion or mere negligence, enduring as an urban myth, apocryphal numbers - the modern equivalent of folklore.

My own area of climate change offers plenty of such examples. In December 2005 a study in the journal Nature offered the observation that the circulation in the North Atlantic Ocean, which sustains the Gulf Stream, had weakened by up to 30 per cent over the previous few decades. This figure and its juxtapositioning alongside the melodrama of films such as The Day after Tomorrow were amplified through the cooperation of scientists and media to result in headlines such as "Alarm over dramatic weakening of Gulf Stream" ( The Guardian, Dec 1, 2005). The urban myth that emerged from this episode was that we were closer to a mini Ice Age in the UK than had previously been thought. Eighteen months later, however, and unremarked by the media, two studies in equally reputable journals pointed out that such a trend was within the range of natural variability and may signify nothing at all.

A second example concerns the claim that, "by the end of this century, climate change will have killed around 182 million people in sub-Saharan Africa" (Christian Aid, May 2006). This number - 180 million African dead - has become one of the most widely cited numbers in the litany of doom that accompanies talk of climate change. In this case, however, the number 180 million was sexed-up science. Christian Aid took the worst-case climate scenario, the highest population scenario and the scenario with the least public health intervention and conjured the number into being. And here it has stayed, a number detached from its receding scientific origins in which assumptions were overlain on scenarios that captured uncertainties.

Whether through being lost in translation, through the premature citing of provisional science or through the purposeful sexing-up of deeply uncertain numbers, the facts of science are not always to be taken at face value.


Replacing the Fatropolis with Fit Towns

New `healthy towns' that encourage people to walk more, eat the right kind of food and stay forever fit take repression to a new level. Comment from Britain

`Salt `could fuel childhood obesity"' whispered one headline this week; `World is in obesity crisis' roared another. It seems barely a day passes without some report or policy announcement reminding us that the deep-fried fruits of modernity are dragging us to our gluttonous, sedentry doom. Change your ways, they exhort. However, if recent plans to redesign our towns as `fit towns' are anything to go by, instruction and guilt-tripping are giving way to something far more repressive.

The possibility of replanning and redesigning our towns in order to encourage healthy lifestyles was originally raised last November by UK health secretary, Alan Johnson. Citing `international evidence and research' that shows we `need a large-scale approach across the whole community to help tackle obesity' he suggested proposed eco-towns should also be made `healthy towns. through their layout, facilities and construction'. He concluded that our `built environment [must] do more to help people make physical activity a normal part of everyday life' (1).

In Boston last Sunday, the conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science saw a similarly depressing nod to lifestyle management. Professor Philip James of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and, more importantly, chairman of the Brave-New-World-sounding International Obesity Taskforce, declared: `The environment in which we live is the overwhelming factor amplifying the obesity epidemic'. He continued, arguing that it was na‹ve to place `the onus on individuals making "healthier choices" while the environment in which we live is the overwhelming factor amplifying the epidemic' (2). Rena Wing of Brown University echoed the pessimistic view of individuals' capacity to make what the holier-than-thou alliance of policy makers and experts deem the right choices: `We live in an obesogenic environment that relies heavily on fast food, automobiles and remote controls - all of which can be labelled as "toxic" to maintaining a healthy weight.' (3)

The overarching aim of remaking our fatropolises as fit-towns is all too clear: as we can't be trusted to make the correct decisions, we, the public, shall be forcibly diverted from the dual-carriage way of temptation on to the fully pedestrianised area of righteousness.

Admittedly, some of the measures suggested seem innocuous enough. Stairwells, for instance, should be made to look less like badly lit fire escapes and made a bit more glamorous, spiral perhaps. And parks should be better maintained, with better lighting. Other proposals, however, are all too restrictive. For instance, some of the proposed towns should give priority to pedestrians and cyclists over the car, perhaps providing office premises with bike-only parking. And the bane of the obesity warrior's crusade, the fast food outlet, must never be erected near parks or schools. (4)

Of course there is nothing especially novel about urban planning, nor its political underpinnings. Take Baron Haussmann's reconstruction of Paris between 1852 and 1870. With memories of the revolutionary commune of 1848 still fresh, Haussmann, under Napoleon III's instructions, demolished vast swathes of the city and built long, sweeping boulevards in their place. In doing so he both inhibited the erection of barricades and made it easy for the army to gain access. In other words the attempt to maintain social order was embodied in Parisians' lived environment.

Indeed, on a more general scale, our environment has long reflected the ruling needs of the moment. Richard Sennet in his 1997 book, The Fall of Public Man, saw in the bustling thoroughfares and concourses of the modern city the predominance of the private individual of bourgeois myth. Public space was made a mere function of private motion, of getting from a to b as quickly as possible. Strolling, meandering, and leisurely interacting with our fellows were incompatible with the manic industriousness demanded of the bourgeois individual.

Accepting that urban planning - the regulation of public space - or indeed, its absence, has always provided a mirror of society, then what does the notion of the fit town reflect? Whilst it is not concerned, as Napoleon III was, with the threat posed by social disorder, it is still dealing with a threat. This time however, the threat is not embodied in, say, the communards - it is not external at all. It is, rather, internal to each and every one of us. Fit towns combat our tendency to consume and to seek convenience - we are our own worst enemies. While fast food, remote controls or electric tooth brushes save labour, they're killing us.

Fit towns embody more than the war on obesity. They wage war on our consuming passions per se, be it a desire to light-up, to booze, or to go large on a Big Mac and fries. Above all they fight our tendency to err.

To borrow, then, from the increasingly martial lexicon of government policy, fit towns are located on the frontier of the war on error. The result, from the jarring positivity of phrases like the International Obesity Taskforce, or, indeed, the `fit town' itself is an environment every bit as deeply repressive as that evoked in their different ways by George Orwell or Aldous Huxley.


Heart disease: we need medicine not moralism

Fear of rising heart deaths is unfounded. And if we're serious about lowering the death rate even further, we need better treatment not lifestyle lectures

This week, a number of news headlines have highlighted the deadly threat of heart disease in Britain: `Bank crises "increase rate of heart attacks"`, warned the UK Guardian on Tuesday. The day before, The Times (London) cautioned that `Young adults' inactivity puts them at risk of heart attack'.

The Guardian report is based on research from the University of Cambridge. Data from the World Bank and World Health Organisation over a 40-year period was analysed at Cambridge, where the researchers concluded that between 1,280 and 5,130 Brits `could die from heart attacks if there was a widespread repeat of the Northern Rock banking crisis' (1). Lead researcher David Stuckler said: `To put this effect in perspective, this is more than 10 times the number of British troops who have died in Iraq.' The researchers found that `cardiac deaths surge briefly and regularly every time there is a systemic bank failure' and it is the elderly that are at greatest risk.

But those of us aged 35 to 54 had better not be too complacent, we're told, because our lives may be cut short by our `live-now' lifestyles. Simon Capewell, professor of clinical epidemiology at the University of Liverpool, said: `The flattening trends in mortality rates among young adults suggest that the cardiovascular disease epidemic is not being controlled.' He warned: `The party is over and complacency runs a high risk.'

Having recently lost both my mother and my uncle to heart disease, I am not about to advocate complacency. It is estimated that in the European Union, cardiovascular disease kills over two million people every year. Still, a little perspective would not go amiss. The fact is that despite the impression given by various newspaper headlines, heart disease is not on the rise. Instead, the concern voiced by some experts, and blown out of all proportion by others, is that the dramatic decrease in deaths from heart disease over the last few decades has started to flatten out.

In my view, the experts should be concerned. They should be continually trying to reduce deaths from heart disease. Clearly, a hell of lot more can be done to improve medical intervention: my mother died from a massive heart attack several months after being put on a waiting list for heart surgery. If she had been given the treatment she needed earlier she may still have been alive today. If the medical establishment could spend a little more time putting its own house in order and a little less time lecturing us about our `live-now' lifestyles, we may all be better off.

The warning that up to 5,000 people could lose their lives if we faced a massive banking crisis may be shocking. But these figures were arrived at using not-entirely-reliable computer models comparing associations between banking crises and cardiovascular disease deaths. Also, when we consider the Cambridge study's figures alongside the fact that there were 68,230 fewer deaths from heart disease in 2000 than there were in 1981 in England and Wales, the potential effect of a financial crisis no longer seems so shocking.

There was a 62 per cent reduction in deaths from heart disease among men and a 45 per cent reduction among women over two decades from 1981. Various factors have contributed to this dramatic decrease. A large-scale study in 2004 by Capewell indicates that 58 per cent of this decrease is due to a reduction in certain risk factors, such as smoking, and 42 per cent is due to the availability of more advanced medical and surgical treatments - although this study, too, was the product of a computer model (2). Today's heart scare is the result of scaremongers twisting what is actually a good news story: the dramatic decline in deaths from heart disease over the past 20 years. That this decline seems to be levelling off should be investigated, of course, but it should also be seen in the context of an overall successful war against death from heart disease.

We all know smoking is bad for us and don't need to be lectured any more about that. The effect of obesity and diet on our health and our hearts is much more uncertain and, to the extent that there is a problem, there is as yet no simple solution like there is with smoking - we can't exactly quit food. So, rather than telling us how to live, physicians should now concentrate on reducing mortality rates further by improving the availability and efficacy of medical intervention.


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