Last year, when the tobacco companies said they would no longer cooperate
with the effort to pass a federal anti-smoking bill, the Clinton administration
said it didn’t really matter. “We will get bipartisan legislation this
year,” Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala told NBC.
“There’s no question about it, because it’s about public health.”(1)
As it turned out, Shalala was a bit overconfident. But her prediction
was certainly plausible, given the way politicians usually behave when the
term public health is bandied about. The incantation of that phrase
is supposed to preempt all questions and erase all doubts. It tells us to
turn off our brains and trust experts like Shalala to think for us….
In short, there is no end to the interventions that could be justified
in the name of public health, as that concept is currently understood.
Although this sweeping approach is a relatively recent development, we can
find intimations of it in the public health rhetoric of the 19th century.