On Sunday, UK campaign group Action on Sugar (AoS) published its Childhood Obesity Action Plan. As puffed up as, well, a sugar puff, AoS declared that the plan had been requested by the secretary of state for health, Jeremy Hunt. The seven action points in the plan aim to tackle the ‘food environment’, which is, apparently, entirely responsible for obesity. Implementing the plan will require the government to provide ‘strong leadership to bring about a sea-change in the philosophy of the whole soft-drink and food industry’. There is plenty to criticise in the AoS plan, which is stuffed full of ideas for lifestyle interference on the word of self-appointed experts. But one idea stands out: ‘a total ban on advertising of ultra-processed foods that are high in saturated fats, sugar and salt, and sweetened soft drinks, to protect children’.
There is already a ban on the broadcast advertising of ‘junk food’ to children in the UK, which came into force in January 2008. However, AoS claims, ‘these restrictions have not protected children, because the current restriction only applies to programmes where children make up a 20 per cent higher proportion of the audience than they do of the general population. This means that the advertising of sweetened soft drinks and ultra-processed fast food occurs in the early evening programmes, which are some of the ones most watched by children, including soaps, game shows and reality TV shows. Indeed about 70 per cent of the television that children watch is outside the hours of “children’s TV” that these rules cover.’
AoS is not the only group to demand an extension of the current ban. For example, in March this year, the Children’s Food Campaign demanded a ban on such adverts before the ‘watershed’ (ie, 9pm), the time when younger children are assumed to have been packed off to bed.
Put simply, such bans, whether limited or comprehensive, are censorship.
There are essentially two problems with any form of censorship. The first is that people, companies or political groups are denied the opportunity to say what they want to say. Of course, this is most important in relation to political ideas. Those who run society should be held to account for their actions and policies, and we should be free to offer up for debate other alternative outlooks and policies. To deny freedom of expression, even to viewpoints that most of society would disagree with, is the first step towards dictatorship – even if it is a dictatorship of the right-on chattering classes rather than an individual autocrat.