Obesity strategy: say no to nanny

Posted on August 19, 2016

The news channels and media yesterday were filled with the squeals of disappointment from public health campaigners about the government's new childhood obesity strategy. Despite the fact that the strategy confirms the 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks and will pressure food manufacturers to reduce sugar content by 20 per cent over the next four years, some of the other ideas that had been mooted - like extending advertising bans and banning supermarket promotions of 'unhealthy' foods - have been dropped. Instead, a greater emphasis has been placed on encouraging children to exercise - to be paid for by the sugary drinks tax.

Sarah Wollaston MP, chair of the Commons Health Committee, said: 'I'm afraid it does show the hand of big industry lobbyists and that's really disappointing.' Diane Abbott similarly declared: 'Theresa May has given in to food and drink industry at the expense of our children's health.' Jamie Oliver was apparently 'in shock' at the strategy, saying: 'It contains a few nice ideas, but so much is missing.' Even the British Retail Consortium was disappointed, arguing that a voluntary scheme for sugar reduction would lead to some firms seeking a competitive advantage by not cutting sugar as much as others. Instead, the BRC wants mandatory reductions.

More sensible voices expressed relief that the government had dropped some of its earlier proposals. Nonetheless, this is still an illiberal strategy that will probably do next to nothing to tackle obesity but has a serious impact on consumer choice. We've previously explained why sugar taxes suck, from forcing everyone to pay more when obesity still only affects a minority of society, the fact that a 20 per cent tax won't change behaviour very much because most people would rather pay it than give up a drink they like, and the fact that we already have plenty of choice - the sugar-free diet drinks are popular and available right next to the sugary versions.

Pressurising food manufacturers to cut back on sugar will mean changing the taste and texture of many popular products. Rather than allowing us to rely on the plentiful information already available on food packaging, the choice to consume a sweeter product is going to be taken away from us altogether. The result will be food that is less appealing than before. The other alternative is to make portion sizes smaller, meaning yet again that we will end up worse off - it's doubtful that prices will drop to reflect those smaller portions.

What no one seems to be asking is why the government needs an obesity strategy in the first place. For most people, the problem of obesity is relatively straightforward: eat less and take more exercise. Of course, that is often easier said than done, but ham-fisted government regulation is hardly the answer. How will having Whitehall pen-pushers deciding on the sugar content of food really help anyone?

We need some perspective. For the mildly obese - those who only just make the definition of obesity - their life expectancy and risk of disease is much the same as for people of normal weight. Only a small minority of people are so overweight that the risk of ill health is substantially increased and their ability to get by in daily life is seriously diminished. But rather than focus efforts on these people, the government has chosen an illiberal, scattergun approach that affects everyone.

The logic of public health demands ever greater interference in our personal choices. The bureaucrats and campaigners that have spent years attacking smokers have expanded their remits to limit our choices on alcohol, food and soft drinks. It's time we pushed back against this creeping authoritarianism.