Leading Article: Who should pay for the "lifestyle" pills?

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The Independent Culture
"BOFFINS HAVE invented a drug that cures shyness, turning painfully bashful folk into party animals." It was SmithKline Beecham's clever repackaging of the antidepressant Seroxat, but it could have been a report of the discovery of alcohol. "The drug sends self-confidence soaring by boosting the level of euphoria-inducing chemicals in the brain."

Indeed, with the increasingly well documented health benefits of moderate red wine consumption, logic dictates that claret should be available on prescription. The reason it is not owes much to the fact that no pharmaceutical company owns the patent on the active ingredient.

The growing commercial exploitation of so-called lifestyle pills raises plenty of questions about society's attitude to drugs. The chemical effects of Seroxat or Prozac or Valium are no different in nature from those of alcohol, cannabis or cocaine. Coca-Cola, before 1903, when it had cocaine in it, was also marketed as a cure for shyness. It is beginning to look odd that medicinal use of cannabis is illegal, while drug companies vie with each other to produce happy-pills and mood-altering potions with similar effects.

But it also raises questions about the scope of the NHS and its setting of priorities. One of the worst opportunistic coinages of Labour in opposition was that the NHS should not be a National Illness Service - that it should be responsible for promoting all aspects of good health. The danger of this approach is that the definition of "healthy" may be widened well beyond what a tax-funded service is capable of delivering. Is the taxpayer under an obligation to ensure that everyone stays thin, has sex and is happy? The bill for anti-obesity pills, Viagra, fertility treatment and mood-altering drugs could drain the Exchequer.

This sort of thing only lends credence to the notion that the NHS is a bottomless pit. Whereas, in fact, a National Illness Service, dealing with accidents, emergencies and acute illnesses, is a pit with a relatively shallow bottom. Clearly, severe obesity, impotence and depression are illnesses and should be treated as such. But beyond that, we enter a widening grey area in which the taxpayer, via the NHS, is picking up the tab for the stresses of modern life.

That is why the Labour Government should take Ann Widdecombe seriously for the content of her Conservative conference speech this week, as well as for its astonishing impromptu delivery. For these are important issues, which cannot be ducked by intoning "the NHS is safe in our hands".