Should We Treat Cosmetic Surgery Like Cigarette Smoking?

by The Center for Bioethics and Culture

By Wesley J. Smith, J.D., Special Consultant to the CBC

The current Bioedge links to a story that I find intriguing. A society of cosmetic surgeons in the UK would like to see advertising for procedures such as breast implants banned. From the Guardian story:

All adverts for cosmetic surgery such as breast enlargement and tummy tucks should be banned, say leading plastic surgeons who warn that the industry is an under-regulated “wild west”. The surgeons are members of the British Association of Aesthetic and Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS), who work on reconstruction in the NHS and often perform cosmetic surgery at leading private hospitals. The group, based at the Royal College of Surgeons, has been concerned for some years about standards in the private cosmetic chains, which advertise widely in the tabloids and women’s magazines. They want a ban as part of a six-point plan proposing tighter regulation of the industry, including registration and audit of surgeons. The Guardian revealed concerns over the training and qualifications of some of those working in the private chains last week.

Hmmm. This seems like a commercial move to gain a competitive advantage to me. It isn’t really seeking to dissuade people from obtaining cosmetic surgery.

But. I do think cosmetic — as opposed to reconstructive — surgery is, with some exceptions, generally a societal negative. If I am right, and if we can ban cigarette and other tobacco advertising because smoking is a destructive habit and harms health, why not the same for cosmetic surgery?

First, all those people who say we should restrict commercial speech for the common good, this kind of proposal is for you! Second, cosmetic surgery can lead to terrible health consequences in a minority of cases. Third, cosmetic surgery is socially destructive because it creates unrealistic expectations of beauty and promotes consumerism about matters that are mostly frivolous.

Finally — and this is the part of the industry to which I most strongly object — the cosmetic surgery sector is parasitic in that it sucks valuable medical resources from the healing sector of medicine, and diverts it into lifestyle enhancement — as we face critical shortages among the cadres of healing professionals. Doctors who could be treating patients’ illnesses and injuries, are instead sucking fat out of hips and surgically attaching synthetics inside of women’s bosoms. Nurses, who could be in hospitals succoring the sick and scared, or in urgent care clinics easing pain and administering needed medicines, are instead looking after people with faces that look like they have been beaten with a baseball bat because when they heal, they hope to have smoother skin, better jaw lines, and/or more attractive cheekbones.

So: Establish enforceable standards of training and professionalism. Yes. Require warning labels including visuals so that prospective customers (I don’t think of face lift consumers as “patients”) are made aware of the grief they are in for if things go wrong? Perhaps.

But ban advertising? No. First Amendment (in the USA) and all that jazz. We are a free societ and there isn’t — or shouldn’t be — a government remedy for every societal negative. Or to put it another way, you can’t always save people from themselves.

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