My mouth, my rules

Sugar-fearin' public-health killjoys - butt out of our eating habits.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

It seems like all-out war has been declared on sugar this week in Britain. On Monday, the doctors’ union, the British Medical Association (BMA), produced a report, Food for Thought, that aimed to ‘set out the measures needed to help promote healthier diets among children and young people’. The most high-profile suggestion was that a tax of 20 per cent should be applied to sugar-sweetened beverages. But the whole report drips with the self-regarding arrogance so typical of public-health ‘experts’, who believe that their narrow view of the world is the only rational design for life. While sugar is in the crosshairs right now, the self-appointed guardians of health have written a much broader prescription.

Skipping quickly over the problem of poverty, something which actually does seem to have an impact on health and longevity but which can’t be solved by lifestyle management, the report focuses on ‘key environmental factors such as the wide availability, promotion and affordability of unhealthy food and drink products’. In other words, the BMA disapproves of the fact that some kinds of food are too cheap and too well advertised. These well-to-do medical busybodies then go after a range of Bad Things: salt, sugar, saturated fat and trans fats. The report not only recommends a tax on sugary drinks, but also, among many other things, calls for ‘traffic-light’ labelling (presumably a ‘red’ light means the food will actually taste of something), bans on adverts during TV programmes that ‘in any way appeal to children’, restrictions on fast-food outlets and subsidies for fruit and veg, including free fruit in schools.

Never mind that the evidence against saturated fat looks a bit thin, with two major reviews in recent years questioning the advice against eating it. Never mind that the evidence that salt is harmful is also rather mixed: if you’ve already got high blood pressure, it might be worth cutting back on salt to see if it helps; but it is unlikely that population-level reductions in salt intake will do anything to improve health. And sugar, the new Public Enemy No1 of the food faddist, is unlikely to be any more harmful than any other cheap form of calories. If you’re putting on weight, sugar might be an easy thing to cut out if you would like to become skinnier, but sugar’s demonic image is ludicrous. Red meat, processed meat, sweet stuff, salty stuff, greasy stuff – you name it, if it ain’t broccoli and apples, it’s killing us.

The scientific evidence for the BMA’s strictures is far from clear. But that is no hindrance to the public-health movement, because science is really just a convenient cover for snobbery, expressing itself as a weird kind of puritanical state socialism. The government must act, or better still, it should get big, undemocratic institutions like the EU or the World Health Organisation (WHO) to act. In the worldview of public health, the farther banal lifestyle decisions can be kept away from the plebs, the better.

So in her foreword, the chair of the BMA’s science committee, Professor Sheila ‘The Baroness’ Hollins (actually, the quotes aren’t supposed to be there in her name, but it sounds so much better as a nickname), writes: ‘We should not tolerate that the next generation is growing up with the normality of regularly consuming processed and fast food, or that there are children who have no concept of where their food comes from.’ But there is no reason why processed food or fast food is automatically worse than food cooked at home from scratch – and there is already clear nutrition labelling on supermarket foods and in many fast-food outlets to allow consumers to make choices as they see fit. But no, that’s not enough for public-health zealots: ‘We should not tolerate’ the wrong kind of food.

And why on Earth should children need to know where food comes from? You might consider this just good general education, but then there are lots of things that are crucial to our everyday lives that most people haven’t got a Scooby Doo about. Few people know how microprocessors work, yet they are ubiquitous and essential to our lives. Many people would now be clueless about how to wire a plug, sew on a button or change a sparkplug, yet these are all skills we might potentially find useful. Equally, while understanding and cooking food might be interesting and enjoyable, it is by no means necessary in modern life. What this really indicates is a romanticism towards food: we need to be in touch with our roots apparently, both metaphorically and literally.

Alongside Hollins’ romantic notions and food prejudices, she frets about the ‘commercial influences that have such a strong impact on diet’. Apparently, we are all unthinking saps who can’t distinguish a sales pitch from the truth. (In truth, even children quickly cotton on to advertising.) But advertising really only affects our choice of brand. Advertising might tempt us to try one brand of soft drink over another, but it won’t turn a lettuce-loving eight-year-old into a junk-food addict. In obsessing over ‘commercial influences’, Hollins reveals a rather middle-class disdain for both big business and its customers.

Hollins’ focus on the alleged influence of advertising is also rather bizarre given that advice to eat healthily is everywhere. As one commentator has wryly put it, we’re more likely to be exposed to policy placement than product placement. TV shows, magazines and newspapers are constantly extolling the virtues of healthy living. In most supermarkets, you have to walk through the fruit and veg to get to the ready meals and the snacks. If we were so susceptible to subliminal messages from supermarkets and the media, we’d all be living off salad and spring water. We eat what we do mostly because we like the taste, not because someone has told us that’s what we should eat or hypnotised us into desiring it.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where the interests of both big business and working-class people are mumbled rather than shouted loudly. That’s left us with nothing but ‘stakeholders’ – usually, self-appointed lobby groups – to pursue their agendas. And there is no lobby more octopus-like in its reach than public health. In reality, public health is all about regulating, taxing or outlawing our private choices. The leading roles in medical colleges and institutions have become soap boxes for miserable, interfering and authoritarian characters to impose their point of view on us all. Now that religion has little purchase in society, the imams of medicine provide chapter and verse on our wicked ways, punishing our sins with ‘sin taxes’ rather than hellfire and damnation.

Politicians, disconnected from society and with little apparent influence over the major problems of the day, are only too happy to be able to say that they will do something when Something Must Be Done. Even the so-called party of business, the Conservatives, has frequently relished the chance to save young people from the malevolent influence of uncaring corporations.

The freedom to eat, drink, smoke and vape whatever we want is in many ways trivial. It is nowhere near as important as free speech, for example. But such is the feeble state of liberty in the UK today that even the right to drink a can of Coke has been called into question. So, to defend liberty in general, we need to defend our right to have bad habits against the wannabe guardians of our health. It’s not exactly Liberté, égalité, fraternité, but perhaps the most appropriate slogan to defend freedom today is ‘My mouth, my rules’ – coming to a placard near you.

Rob Lyons is campaigns manager at Action on Consumer Choice. With Christopher Snowdon, he is author of a new paper, Sweet Truths: Is there a market failure in sugar?, published today by the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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Topics Politics


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