Promoting wellness is becoming a means for government and big business to exercise control over our lives.
The pretext is cost-cutting—the idea that if employers and government can persuade us to live healthier lifestyles, then society will benefit from less government spending on health care and reduced business costs from lowered health-insurance premiums and fewer employee sick days.
But when does helpfully promoting wellness—say, by providing exercise classes, or professional assistance to employees who decide to quit smoking—become an intrusion into personal privacy? When does a laudable desire to reduce healthcare costs become an obsession with controlling how we live our lives?
Here’s one example. Republicans in the House of Representatives want to empower employers to induce their employees to be genetically tested so that the obtained information can be compiled and used in fashioning company wellness programs. Currently, employees can volunteer to be genetically tested if their employer’s wellness program offers the service. However, it is illegal under federal law—the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—for an employer to punish those who refuse such testing or to offer incentives to persuade workers to allow their genetic makeup to be assessed.
But the Republican-backed and Orwellian-titled “Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act” (how does preventing coercion around genetic testing inhibit companies from establishing wellness programs?) would erase those crucial privacy protections by permitting employers to charge workers a higher cost for their health insurance as a quasi-punishment for refusing to give up their genetic privacy. Talk about empowering large institutions over the individual!
The bill would maintain existing privacy protections on the use of such information and would supposedly ensure that the data derived be presented only in the aggregate, not in an individualized format. But as tens of millions of victims—ranging from Yahoo! users to female marines—have learned, in the contemporary world true privacy can never be guaranteed. Once personal information is launched into cyberspace, unauthorized access is often just a matter of time and opportunity.
The Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act illustrates the growing interest of big government and business in protecting us from ourselves—whether we like it or not—with wellness and health improvement the seemingly benign pretexts for herding us into officially approved lifestyles. This trend took off with anti-smoking programs—and yes, smoking is very bad for one’s health. Tobacco is taxed exorbitantly to pay for government health programs. Smoking areas have been dramatically curtailed. Smokers—of tobacco, at least—have in many ways become quasi-pariahs, forbidden to light up in public beaches or parks and, in a few places, forbidden even to indulge their nicotine habit in their own homes.
Well and good, many might say. Think of the cancers and heart attacks that have been prevented.
The problem is that we never know when enough is enough. The success of anti-smoking campaigns became the model for attacking obesity. Sugary drinks are being taxed, and in some places truly draconian proposals have been made—for example, to ration healthcare and deny some surgeries to obese people—all justified by the excuse that the unhealthy lifestyle of the obese is inimical to society.
Yet, with all of our wellness Puritanism, official intrusiveness isn’t universally applied. For example, if we really want to discourage unhealthy lifestyles, why aren’t promiscuous people targeted for coercive wellness efforts? After all, having multiple sexual partners increases the risk of contracting HIV—very expensive to treat over decades—and other venereal diseases, not to mention that it leads to unwanted pregnancies and can contribute to mental health problems. Moreover, the societal costs associated with irresponsible sexual activity manifest themselves much more quickly than do those caused by smoking or obesity, which can take decades to develop.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not an argument for government or big business to extend their intrusive machinations into our intimate relations. I bring up promiscuity to illustrate that when it comes to wellness campaigns, all unhealthy behaviors are not created equal. Perhaps that is because, in the current era, sexual adventurism is not only culturally accepted, but often promoted actively—even as we yell at smokers and the obese for burdening the healthcare system through their behaviors.
When I was a kid, if my mother caught me snooping into our neighbors’ lives, she would yell at me to “MYOB!” (mind your own business). It’s time for the government and our employers to listen to my mother. If today’s trends continue, our freedom could be strangled by bureaucratic lifestyle management.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and the author of Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine.