IN HIS youth, Jack McConnell was a smoker who went eight years without eating vegetables - a factor, the First Minister has admitted, which caused him severe intestinal problems. He now claims to have adopted a strict fruit and veg routine.
Health Minister Andy Kerr smoked 20 a day before giving up when his wife got pregnant. In an interview last month, he boasted how over one weekend recently he jogged 17km. "I have a decent healthy breakfast every morning. I have a decent healthy lunch every day. And I do my running at weekends. If I want to eat and enjoy the odd curry then I compensate in other ways."
Finance Minister Tom McCabe, the man who persuaded McConnell to adopt last month's smoking ban, is a similarly reformed character, whose jogging rivals Kerr's.
None, however, are as fit as Education Minister Peter Peacock, "the healthiest member of the cabinet", according to Kerr.
These middle-aged men who, like all males in their 40s or early 50s, are facing the inevitable beginnings of physical decline, are suddenly exhibiting the zeal of the convert to healthy living - and they are determined to force the rest of us to see the light. The smoking ban was just the beginning. Welcome to the authoritarian world of Scottish Executive health fascism.
We - yes, you - are not doing enough to look after ourselves, ministers insist. Despite millions of pounds spent on advertising, education programmes and even appeals to simple common sense, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer rates in Scotland are still among the world's highest. Our compulsion to eat the wrong food, drink too much and smoke appears unstoppable. Scotland continues to list towards the bottom of the European health league.
This has led our political masters to one conclusion: Scots cannot be trusted to look after their own health. But is it any of their business? Do the politicians we elect have the right to force us to live more healthily?
The scale of the problem is undisputed. Over the next five years, cancer cases are set to soar to more than 31,000 a year, compared with 26,000 in 2000. The number of obese children in Scottish schools is also double the level of the UK, while 64% of adult men and 57% of adult women are overweight or obese. Scotland's death rate from heart disease remains the second highest in western Europe, killing 12,500 each year.
In response, Kerr and his fellow ministers are quietly embarking on a revolutionary approach to healthcare which will bring with it a very real growth in the Nanny State. Following the successful implementation of the smoking ban in enclosed public places, they have devised a plan to mollycoddle us into wellness.
The new approach represents a massive shift away from the old hospital-centred NHS, in which the state would offer a safety net of medical care to people who found themselves needing help. It is happening across the UK - at Westminster, for example, the government is preparing to introduce a smoking ban across England and Wales - but Scotland is leading the way.
Kerr, the former 20-a-day man, is the high priest of this new ideology. He is recalibrating the health service to try to prevent people getting ill in the first place.
Kerr believes it will save money, improve life chances and cut Scotland's dreadful health inequalities, which mean people in the poorest areas are dying 15 years before those in the richest. In a recent interview with Holyrood magazine, he said: "What I believe the health service is about is preventative, anticipatory care. We know where the chronic heart disease cases are going to be. We know who is going to be in the back of the ambulance, or indeed on the slab in our mortuaries. Let's get to them before that happens." But to do this entails more intrusion in our daily lives than has ever before been contemplated.
It begins before we are born. Mothers-to-be are to be subjected to a tide of instructions on what to eat, what supplements to take, how much to drink and what they should avoid. Smoking, of course, is an absolute no-no. Health chiefs look poised to add folic acid to flour and bread - a move which is known to cut rates of spina bifida in children by 40%.
Once a child is born, the onslaught steps up a gear - first over breast-feeding. Breast milk is known to be more nutritious than formula milk, leaving babies less vulnerable to allergies and conditions such as asthma. Consequently, midwives and health visitors now badger mothers to ensure they do what is "right". It has been made illegal to prevent women from breast-feeding in public. The Scottish Executive is seeking to allow women the right to take breast-feeding breaks at work.
As children reach school age, the scrutiny continues. Health visitors and doctors are required to report on the clothes youngsters are wearing to give an indication of how well their parents are looking after them.
And, as we reveal today, when Scotland's four and five-year-olds first go to primary school, they will now have their weight and height measured to calculate their Body Mass Index. The move will allow public health experts to monitor obesity levels and offer additional support to the families of those most at risk.
For those irresponsible people who refuse all this help from the Mother State and persist in staying unhealthy into adult life, further plans have been concocted. Scots can no longer smoke in public places. As this paper revealed last year, so-called "health police" are being sent into deprived areas to persuade residents to go to their GPs for a check-up. Health officials believe they can predict the kind of illnesses such people might suffer in later years, and prevent it happening through "anticipatory care".
Even for the elderly, the onslaught continues. GPs are now able to prescribe courses of exercise to OAPs who they feel are not fit enough. Not for them a peaceful retirement; it is time, in the words of the many Scottish Executive posters put up across Scotland, to "CHOOSE LIFE!".
Kerr's revolution has passed relatively unnoticed until now. But the recent introduction of the smoking ban has shone a light on the wider cultural changes he is imposing. An ideological war - that age-old battle between individual liberty and the power of the state - is brewing.
For critics, Kerr's approach is too heavy-handed, and represents an excessive level of interference in our lives by the government. They claim the smoking ban marks the start of a new era of hardline paternalism that will see the public's right to personal choice gradually being eroded.
London-based think-tank the International Policy Network has become so concerned about the issue that it has set up a health promotion unit to campaign for less Draconian measures across Britain as a whole.
"There is an incremental replacement of the family unit by the state that is seeking to bludgeon people into changing their behaviour," said Philip Stevens, director of the unit. "People generally react to incentives, not to threats and instructions to change their behaviour - blanket regulations and policies don't work."
The evidence suggests he may have a point. Recent studies found that mass media campaigns used to educate the population about key health issues fail to produce the required results.
One study of a Health Education Board for Scotland advertising campaign promoting walking showed it produced no change in adults' behaviour.
This has not so much deterred the health zealots in government as emboldened them. The problem, they believe, is not that health promotion doesn't work, but that it has not been nearly aggressive enough.
The only way to bring about the health improvements the government wants, they argue, is to apply greater control over the public's ability to harm themselves with poor lifestyle choices.
Scotland's main public health agency, the Health Education Board for Scotland (now rebranded as NHS Health Scotland to reflect this change in thinking) is at the forefront of this work.
"Education has been pretty unsuccessful," admits Dr Laurence Gruer, director of public health science at NHS Health Scotland. "People know they should eat five fruit and vegetables a day, cut down on sugar and fat and reduce salt in their diets. But when you look at the results, diets in Scotland have changed very little.
"In fact, people are now eating less fish than they used to, despite it being pushed as one of the healthiest things you can eat. It is clear that, for a lot of people, education is going right over their heads."
Consequently, with education failing, ministers in Scotland are considering a raft of tough new measures aimed at cracking down on unhealthy lifestyles.
The list of ideas being considered by the Executive is remarkable in its scope. In the country's schools, fizzy drinks and junk food could be completely banned and parents given strict instructions on what they should be giving their children in packed lunches.
GPs will be asked to quiz patients on their exercise levels under proposals made by health experts, while pregnant women could be referred for exercise classes if overweight. Patients could also be sent on commercial diet programmes similar to WeightWatchers, and public sector workers screened for obesity in their workplace.
Outlined in a report by NHS Health Scotland, "Developing a Healthy Weight Action Plan for Scotland", the proposals are now being examined by Kerr.
Mary Allison, head of health topics at NHS Health Scotland, said they hoped that schemes to monitor obesity in public sector workers would also be adopted by private companies.
"Many people are already offered eye checks and blood pressure tests at work, so it could be part of that package," she said. "If people want to do something about their weight, the support would be there."
Not content with forcing pub-goers to stub out their cigarettes, Kerr is also turning his attention to Scots' predilection for alcohol. Changes to the licensing laws and a ban on drinking in public are an attempt to curb the booze culture.
"The way I look at the alcohol debate is that I think that we are in the foothills of the debate that we have now had on smoking," he declares.
Scottish Labour's policy documents for next year's devolved elections point to how the party intends to continue its push to make Scots improve their health, by "reaching out to those most in need of preventative medicine" and proposing strategies to get people more active in and around their own homes. Labour also suggests making employers offer better facilities, longer lunch breaks and even discounts for staff to encourage physical activities.
At heart, this new authoritarianism is spurred by the basic socialist beliefs of Labour politicians - their desire to ensure equality. The problem with the health service as it is, they argue, is that it offers excellent care for those with the time and resources to use it properly, but leaves out the poorest members of the community who are less able to look after their health.
Labour MSP for Greenock and Inverclyde Duncan McNeil is a leading proponent of further intervention in Scotland's most deprived areas. He now wants health chiefs to use new technology to find people who are in danger of developing chronic diseases. With medical records being made electronic, health authorities will soon be able to track individuals, looking at their health and that of their parents in order to assess their risk of future disease.
"People have a right to know if we have information about them that suggests they are in danger," said McNeil. "There is no contradiction in my mind between civil liberties and creating a very personalised health service which can alert people to problems."
Scotland's pursuit of health nirvana is mirrored across the world. In Ireland, the government is already seeking to build on its ban on smoking in public places by banning the sale of packs of 10 cigarettes. They hope the move will put the cost of cigarettes out of reach of youngsters. They are also proposing restrictions on the use of vending machines.
In Texas, undercover agents are cracking down on public drunkenness by arresting drinkers for being intoxicated in bars. The World Health Organisation is pressing for tighter controls on food manufacturers and has even declared war on the family car.
For traditional libertarians, these are tough times. The problem, they argue, is that all this paternalism follows the law of unintended consequences. Fire chiefs are warning the smoking ban may result in a rise in the number of house fires as more people light up at home.
The widespread use of statins, the cholesterol-lowering wonder drug, for heart patients has also seen many continue their bad eating and drinking habits due to a false sense of security created by the drug.
For Philip Stevens, at the International Policy Network, the growing tendency for doctors and the government to interfere in people's private behaviour fails to address the real problems that cause poor health such as unemployment, deprivation and social exclusion.
He added: "If the World Health Organisation has its way then out-of-town shops should no longer be approved by town planners, as they increase dependency upon cars.
"Such policies could be extremely harmful and would disproportionately affect the poor. There is a tendency for the medical profession to want to cut out everything that makes the world modern."
Kerr, however, has no time for the critics, and believes that the smoking ban will come to be seen as one of Holyrood's greatest achievements.
"Everywhere I go, I say my biggest job as health minister is to improve the health of the nation. That's it."
Kerr and McConnell, whose healthy diet appears to be producing the bizarre side effect of gradually increasing his weight, are determined to change our behaviour whether we like it or not. Nobody disagrees that many Scots might benefit from being healthier. But history is littered with examples of the damage done to liberty and freedom when politicians think they know with absolute certainty what is good for us.