Why do we need an obesity strategy?
Our waistlines are none of the government’s business.
As long-awaited as a bus in a rural village, the government’s new childhood obesity strategy was finally published last week. The response was a wall of wailing campaigners, who accused the government of weakness and even of kowtowing to big business – despite the fact that the strategy confirms plans to impose a 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks and pressure food manufacturers into reducing sugar content by 20 per cent over the next four years. To anyone with a modicum of common sense, this looks like another serious wave of state intervention in our eating habits.
So why the moaning? Well, earlier drafts of the strategy suggested even more illiberal policies, like extending advertising bans on foods high in salt, fat and sugar, and banning supermarket promotions of ‘unhealthy’ foods. 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 the 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 (BRC), which represents the big supermarkets, 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.
All of which confirms a much-repeated lesson of modern politics: there is simply no satisfying public-health zealots. Once upon a time, slapping a tax on sugary drinks and demanding the reformulation of foods were the key demands of anti-sugar campaigners. Now, an obesity strategy that does precisely those things shows the government has caved in to Big Food.
The sugary drinks tax is not only illiberal, it’s plain dumb. It won’t have any noticeable effect on obesity. Those who love a particular brand of sugary drink will just cough up more money to buy it. Those who like such drinks but aren’t too fussed about brand can switch to a cheaper one and probably end up paying less. In any event, so few calories come from sugary drinks that, even if people stopped drinking them altogether, it would make little impact on their waistlines, especially if they satisfy their sweet tooths with other products instead. As it happens, sales of sugary soda in Mexico, which introduced a similar tax a couple of years ago, already appear to be bouncing back. And whose consumption was affected most by the tax? Those with the lowest incomes. A sugary drinks tax means robbing the poor to soothe the anxieties of the rich.
The other major intervention in the strategy is the plan to browbeat food manufacturers into cutting sugar in their products by five per cent every year for the next four years. This will make foods less enjoyable – the sugar is there for a reason, after all. Moreover, you can’t simply replace sugar in many products with artificial sweeteners because the sugar is important in the consistency of the product. Biscuits and cakes depend on sugar, in part, for their texture. And how do you make a bar of milk chocolate less sugary? There is little alternative but to make the bars smaller. So we’ll be buying less enjoyable food or just getting less of it for our money.
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. Demanding that Whitehall gets a say in what ingredients are used in our food is a recipe for, if not disaster, worse food and higher prices. If people want to cut down on sugar, all they need to do is stop eating it. The choice should be left up to us.
What’s more, we are not in the midst of some national emergency, with obesity rates skyrocketing. In fact, obesity rates among children plateaued 10 years ago, and have probably fallen since. Moreover, most people who fit the definition of ‘obese’ are merely mildly chubby – that spare tyre is unlikely to have any significant impact on your health. For a small percentage of people, their obesity is such that it could reduce their life expectancy and make day-to-day living much more difficult. Let’s devote our energies to solving their problems rather than taxing and regulating everyone.
The obesity strategy is awful, but it could have been worse. Maybe Theresa May will be a more traditionally Conservative prime minister – that is, less interested in micromanaging our lives – than her paternalistic predecessor, David Cameron. Maybe dealing with Brexit will ensure her diary is too full to worry about such trivialities. Here’s hoping.
Rob Lyons is campaigns manager at Action on Consumer Choice.