Friday, June 23, 2006

The day after Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger crashed his motorcycle, and while he was still recovering from surgery to repair his fractured face, the Cincinnati Post scolded the Ohio native for not wearing a helmet. “Riders should wear helmets,” the paper proclaimed, “and if they’re not going to, perhaps the government should step in and make them.”

The Post pined for the days when “all states required helmets,” bemoaning the fact 30 states now let adult motorcyclists decide what, if anything, to wear on their heads. The laws were changed, the editorial explained, because of “pressure from those who advocate ‘freedom.”’ Note the scare quotes. According to the Cincinnati Post, the freedom to take a risk is not really freedom at all; you are truly free only when you make the right choices — those that minimize the chance of injury. It’s a depressingly common attitude nowadays, when health promotion is routinely accepted as a justification for meddling in what used to be considered our private lives.

By the standards of “public health,” which seeks above all else to minimize morbidity and mortality, Mr. Roethlisberger should not have been riding a motorcycle at all. Given the nature of his injuries, it’s doubtful a helmet would have prevented them, unless it was a full-face model. But it’s certain Mr. Roethlisberger would not have been in a motorcycle crash if he had never ridden a motorcycle.

If injury prevention were Mr. Roethlisberger’s overriding goal, of course, he probably would not have chosen a career in professional football. “I wish all our players liked board games or low-risk hobbies,” Cleveland Browns General Manager Phil Savage said after Mr. Roethlisberger’s accident. “Unfortunately, one of the things that makes these professional athletes is they have an edge that makes them want to seek more.”

The same could be said of motorcyclists generally, especially those who have fiercely resisted laws forcing helmets on their heads. “If you’ve never ridden a motorcycle,” says Jeff Hennie of the Motorcycle Riders Foundation, “there’s no way to describe the feeling of freedom. It’s got to be the next best thing to being able to fly. When you start putting restrictions on that freedom, people take it personally.”

There’s that word again. The editors of the Cincinnati Post are not the only ones puzzled by the concept. At a recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-sponsored conference, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg — who brags about tracking New Yorkers’ blood sugar levels and driving down cigarette consumption with high taxes and a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants — called for “an aggressive, comprehensive public health strategy” aimed at “deadly menaces [that] result from our choices,” including “tobacco addiction, unhealthy nutrition, and excessively sedentary lifestyles.”

As to government efforts to influence what we eat and how much exercise we get, Mr. Bloomberg acknowledged “some people may call that too intrusive.” He dismissed this with a relabeling: “I call it dynamic and effective public health.” You say tomato.. .

The problem is that Mr. Bloomberg’s idea of public health, like the CDC’s, does not distinguish between deadly diseases people catch and risky things they choose to do. In his speech he equated smoking, overeating and failing to wear a seat belt with polio, cholera and tuberculosis, wishing away freedom by pretending it doesn’t exist.

“We rely on the forceful application of law — democratically debated and approved — as the principal instrument of public health policy,” Mr. Bloomberg said. So as long as your risky hobby or habit meets with the majority’s approval, there’s no need to worry, unless you think politicians sometimes are driven by their own ideological agendas.

Mr. Bloomberg wants us to know he’s not one of those fanatics. “Clearly,” he said, “there are many matters of personal behavior and personal taste that we have no business regulating.” Oddly, he did not name one.

Jacob Sullum is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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