This week Friends of the Earth Scotland highlighted data from various sources outlining the extent of air pollution in Scotland and the rest of the UK. These figures, detailed in the graphic above, are shocking on their own, but I wanted to compare them to another major cause of death in the UK in order to make a point about the kind of moral paternalism our government espouses: drugs.
You see, one of the major justifications put forward by the UK Home Office – the Government department responsible for the UK’s drug policies – is the stuff of moral paternalism; in banning certain psychoactive substances the government claims to be acting in our best interests. Drug laws are purportedly designed to reduce harm in relation to drug use (the fact that these policies do the exact opposite is another matter), and what’s wrong with that? Aren’t we lucky to have a government that wants to protect us and keep us healthy? A more cynical person might question that motive; they might even doubt the moral basis of the government’s decision to ban certain types of drug use altogether.
And this, I hope, is where we can draw an interesting parallel between the UK State’s drug policies and their environmental policies. First, lets look at the mortality figures related each to illicit drugs and air pollution. While there were 2,248 drug-related deaths (specifically illicit drug-related deaths) in England and Wales* throughout 2014, there were 29,000 deaths related to air pollution (source above). That’s just under 13 times as many deaths due to air pollution as compared to illicit drugs.
What’s important about these figures, and what does drug policy have to do with environmental policy? It all comes down to the approach and spending on what are ultimately both health-related problems with negative health-outcomes for the public. While, as demonstrated, environmental pollution causes far more deaths in England and Wales than do illicit drugs, the government spends around £4.4 billion on illicit drugs once proactive and reactive expenditure across the healthcare and criminal justice systems are combined. The ‘drug problem’ – and more recently the ‘legal high’ problem’ – are continually reiterated as one of the major social and moral issues facing UK society.
So, given that air pollution is a much greater killer than illicit drugs, what are the UK Government doing to tackle the problem? The UK Government, like any other EU member state, is legally bound by the EC Ambient Air Quality Directive, which sets out stringent targets for reducing air pollution. Sadly, according to Friends of the Earth, many UK streets and locales regularly fail to meet these targets (same source as above). But we can’t put all of the blame onto the Government, can we?
Unfortunately it’s not just cars that create air pollution. The UK still regularly burns fossil fuels as one of it’s main domestic energy sources, including dirty coal-fired power stations. Coal-powered stations are to be phased out in the next 10 years, however the gas-fired power plants, which will largely replace coal in addition to nuclear, still produce deadly greenhouse gases and contribute to local air pollution as well as global climate change.
OK, so they are trying to improve the situation. Or are they? The UK Government are currently doing their best to help the TTIP trade agreement to pass through EU legislators. Without going into too much detail this agreement will allow corporations equal or greater legal rights to that of entire countries, overriding the democratic sovereignty of the people of those countries. One of the first things to happen – and it’s happening already in parts of England despite warnings from other countries – is that ‘fracking’ (unconventional gas-extraction) companies will be let loose on the British countryside. One of the main criticisms of fracking is the impact it has on air quality, among other issues like pollution of the water table. If the UK Government were so concerned for our health – as they claim to be in relation to drug policy – then why are they trying their hardest to allow the activities of an industry that will almost certainly increase air pollution – and therefore deaths.
And that’s not all. Despite saying all the right words at the recent Paris Climate Summit, David Cameron’s Government have recently announced cuts to subsidies for renewables such as solar and wind energy production across the UK. These are the projects that would have finally shifted the UK away from fossil fuels, even gas, and onto a Greener future – reducing air pollution in the process. Scotland achieved 50% renewable energy for the first time in 2015, but since most of this comes from wind-energy production continued progress towards sustainable energy is in danger of stalling. As if cutting subsidies to renewables isn’t enough, the UK Government subsidises the UK fossil fuel industry roughly £6 billion per year (to profit-making, environmentally damaging, socially irresponsible corporations). That they can hand over billions to companies such as BP while the government body responsible for monitoring air pollution, Defra, has been hit with the largest portion of cuts out of all public bodies in the UK, is scarcely believable.
When two seemingly unrelated policies are compared – drug policy and environmental policy – the hypocrisy of the UK Government becomes clear. While on one hand the Government claims the moral high-ground in justifying a punitive (and ineffective, at least in terms of reducing deaths) drug policy, on the other hand they not only fail to reduce air pollution – a much greater cause of deaths in the UK – but they cut back on renewable solutions and actively encourage large corporate polluters through generous subsidies.
The hypocrisy of our Government’s moral paternalism is clear to see: when the profits of large-scale corporations are involved, economics comes before the health of the population. Just why, then, do they maintain the charade of protecting the public from drugs? My guess would be that politics – in particular obtaining votes – trumps both economics and public health in the minds of our political elite, and the ‘tough on drugs’ stance is a tried and tested vote winner – particularly for the core of Conservative voters.
Next time the Government uses morality as a justification for policy, remember just how much their ‘morals’ can be swayed by money and the needs of their corporate friends. Then ask yourself how much you really trust them.
*I haven’t combined the drug-related death figures for England and Wales with that of Scotland or Northern Ireland because drug-related deaths are recorded slightly differently in each region and to do so would therefore skew the figures. Figures for spending on drug policy and related issues are only available as a UK-wide figure.