Humans like being scared. The popularity of horror films and “ghost train” rides are testament to that. In times gone by scary stories would be told around campfires. Many fairy tales are full of ghost goblins, wolves and other “critters” seeking to harm or kill the hero.
Fear is a powerful emotion. Marketers have figured this out. Many ads about beauty products prey on fear of not being attractive. Many ads for food prey on our fears of not being healthy. Public health campaigns also work on this principle. We see ads about the dangers of smoking or driving even one kilometer per hour over the limit.
Yet the effect wears off. Watch a horror film for the second time and you won’t jump nearly so much as you know what is coming up next. It is no longer scary. Most public health campaigns have a limited shelf life, as the shock effect is lost quickly.
There is another factor in public health too. After success in highlighting the dangers of smoking, it was assumed that the same approach works in all other settings. It does not. The classic case is alcohol where there is a perfectly safe level of consumption. Thus the two legs bad, four legs good approach fails.
But there is an even bigger issue – and that is over reach. As the world becomes safer the paranoia about ever diminishing risk gets greater. Parents letting children play in a park are accused of child neglect. The sun, which is essential for life on earth, is described as a killer in public health ads.
And the best of all are the foods, which cause cancer or other illness. Sugar is the new bad boy. Yes too much sugar is a major problem for health. However, focusing all the attention on one food (the epic fail of fat is bad still haunts us) is another recipe for disaster. Too much refined carbohydrate (of which sugar cane is just one example) is the problem.
A sugar tax will not impact consumption of low fat packaged foods with four stars and three government elephant stamps.
The latest health scare is a beauty though. Roasted (above 120 oC) food may contain acrylamide which some claim is carcinogenic. This is based on unreliable, inconclusive research done in mice. Potatoes, toast or any “brown” food is in the firing line.
According to The Telegraph “Under a new European Union food hygiene directive, due to be adopted in the UK by the end of 2017, pubs and restaurants will be told to take reasonable steps to reduce acrylamide in food or face enforcement measures”.
Really? Enforcement measures for serving golden potatoes. You can start to see why Britain voted to leave the EU. Even if you believe that golden brown potatoes are dangerous, and I do not, then do not order them. To have petty government officials going around to restaurants, issues fines and notices on the color of potatoes and toast is something from a Monty Python sketch. The Ministry of Silly Walks has become the Ministry of Golden Potatoes.
And what if you over do the toast at home. Will the public health nannies send in a SWAT team to defuse the situation? No over reaction is too great to save even one person from such danger.
Some in medicine bemoan the declining faith that the public has in experts. When the experts behave like this, it is little wonder.
This article first appeared on www.drjoetoday.com