In a brief BMJ article, George Davey Smith describes Nazi Germany's pioneering campaigns against smoking, drinking, overeating, and other unhealthy habits. (Robert N. Proctor's 1999 book The Nazi War on Cancer explores this topic in more detail.) "It may seem paradoxical that the robust identification of one of the most important environmental causes of disease of the 20th century occurred in a totalitarian state," Smith writes, referring to Nazi research on the link between smoking and lung cancer.
In fact, the Nazis' focus on the threats that risky habits pose to "public health" makes perfect sense in light of their collectivist ideology. "Brother national socialist," said one bit of Nazi propaganda, "do you know that your Führer is against smoking and thinks that every German is responsible to the whole people for all his deeds and missions, and does not have the right to damage his body with drugs?"
Smith adds: "Clearly there were considerable links between the promotion of particular lifestyles and the racial hygiene movement. Tobacco and alcohol were seen as 'genetic poisons,' leading to degeneration of the German people."
The point, I hasten to add, is not that today's "public health" paternalists are Nazis. I am not suggesting that everyone who hates smoking is just like Hitler. But there is an unmistakable totalitarian logic to the notion that the government has a responsibility to promote "public health" by preventing us from engaging in activities that might lead to disease or injury. The implication is that we all have a duty to the collective to be as healthy as we can be, an idea the Nazis embraced but one that Americans ought to find troubling.
[Thanks to Jeff Schaler for the link.]