Socialist Worker

Are poor people to blame for their own poor health?

Issue No. 2291

David Cameron has got drinkers in his sights. He says minimum prices should be slapped on alcohol—and claims the NHS has to spend billions on treating people who are “irresponsible”.

Many sympathise with his view that the poor need to be saved from themselves. But it’s not that simple.

Many people in Britain drink, smoke, take drugs, have a bad diet, and so on. But their poor quality of life cannot be reduced to these factors.

Class is the fundamental decider when it comes to health and life expectancy.

A working class person can drink the same amount as a rich one in a “better” postcode—but will still have years sliced off their life because of work, living conditions and poverty.

Many ruling class people drink to excess and take harmful drugs.

But with their powerful position in society, and their wealth, they are less likely to fall through the net and spiral into a cycle of addiction.

The root of the problem is a system designed to squeeze as much profit out of workers as possible.

To do this, the bosses have to strike a balance.

Capitalists who run companies that produce unhealthy and addictive things like alcohol, junk food and so on want to push them on workers to make bumper profits.

Healthy

But capitalism as a whole also wants a workforce that is healthy enough to be able to work.

The way out of this dilemma is to make health into an issue of “personal morality”.

So the Tories point the finger at individuals—but they let the drink companies and the junk food lobby off the hook.

Cameron’s own history as a company director shows the hypocrisy. On the one hand he tells people they need to take “responsibility” for their actions.

But he is a former director of bar chain Tiger Tiger, part of the multi-billion pound drinks industry.

On his watch the firm offered bonuses to bar staff who pushed extra booze to meet stringent sales targets.

For Cameron to turn on the alcohol lobby was a climbdown on his part.

It came after organisations like the doctors’ British Medical Association urged the government to take action over cheap drink. But it is the wrong conclusion.

Trying to solve health problems by putting up prices is relying on the market to solve the problem on an individual basis.

Instead of help, it offers only punishment.

But the answer to public health problem not moralism, it is state intervention.

The biggest single contribution to improving the health of the working class in Britain came with the construction of sewage works and access to clean drinking water.

If the government really wants to encourage us to take more exercise, it should reduce the working week—and open more leisure centres and swimming pools instead of closing them.

And if it wants poorer families to eat more healthily, it should raise minimum wages instead of raising minimum prices!

People with enough money to live on will eat more healthily.

The government could also mandate supermarkets to cut the prices on fruit and vegetables.

Or if it wants to improve the diet of young people, it could properly fund school meals—making them free and nutritious.

The Tories and the ruling class always argue we can’t afford these things.

But they’ve never improved the lives of working class people without a fight.

When they say smoking, drinking, eating too much and not exercising are our own failings, we should call them out on the lie.

Our health problems are down to the poverty, inequality and exploitation that are at the heart of the capitalist system.

The poor are poor not because of their own “fecklessness” and failure, but precisely because the rich are rich.

We have to argue for social and collective solutions—not finger-wagging. That means redistributing wealth, funding the NHS, and removing the influence and power of big business.

The anger at the way that poor health destroys people’s lives should power us forward in the fight against capitalism.


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Tue 21 Feb 2012, 18:24 GMT
Issue No. 2291
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