Boris’s obesity strategy treats us like children

People are not tricked by advertisers into eating unhealthily.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics UK

Here’s the story: our chubby, fun-loving prime minister, Boris Johnson, has a nearish-death experience with Covid-19, experiences a Damascene conversion about his unhealthy lifestyle, loses a bit of weight, and realises that it is vitally important that we all do the same. If that means another round of ‘nanny state’ fussbucketry, then so be it, despite his widely proclaimed ‘libertarian instincts’. Thus we have a new obesity strategy.

The Westminster government’s policy paper, Tackling Obesity: Empowering Adults and Children to Live Healthier Lives, has drawn wide praise. At last, say health campaigners, we have a government that is willing to make the tough decisions. Celebrity chef and food crusader Jamie Oliver told LBC: ‘I’m actually doing something I didn’t think I’d be doing. I’m applauding Boris for doing something bold, forthright, having not one, but a handful, an ambush of initiatives I believe will make a difference.’

This is a high praise for a document that includes little more than micromanaging tweaks, more NHS intervention with patients, and an illiberal advertising ban. It will do nothing for obesity rates – let alone rates of obesity before any putative ‘second wave’ of Covid-19 infections — its justification. It is more pointless interference in our lives. We can be pretty confident that these policies won’t work because they are pretty much the same policies trotted out time and again.

One proposal is to put calorie counts on restaurant and takeaway food from businesses employing more than 250 people. This won’t make much difference because they are quickly ignored and most of our food is eaten at home anyway. And if you’re ordering a pizza or a kebab, you probably weren’t worrying about your waistline much anyhow. In any event, many of the big chains provide nutrition information already, if you want to find it.

There will be a new campaign to encourage us to eat healthily – including an app! (Health secretary Matt Hancock will be delighted, he loves an app.) Never mind that over 10 years ago, New Labour introduced Change4Life, continued by successive governments, that provided a family of cartoon characters suggesting we make small changes to their lives. There’s an app for that, too, and the whole thing has clearly achieved bugger all but provide a handy stipend for a coterie of lifestyle meddlers and advertising executives.

Along with more calorie labels (including on alcohol), there will be a review of the ‘traffic light’ labelling system. Again, we’ve had that for a while already and it’s not achieved anything. Calorie labels on mass-produced booze products are not particularly objectionable, but I don’t imagine knowing that a pint of lager has 200 calories in it will stop anyone from having another drink.

Perhaps the biggest change will be ‘to end the promotion of foods high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) by restricting volume promotions such as buy one get one free, and the placement of these foods in prominent locations intended to encourage purchasing, both online and in physical stores in England’.

This may make food more expensive, but more likely there will be workarounds. For example, my local Co-op recently had a deal on big bags of own-brand crisps – £1.70 for one bag, £2 for two bags. Would it be banned? How much of a discount for buying more is a ‘volume promotion’? If you’re buying snacks or sweets anyway, are you going to ignore HALF PRICE slapped on the shelf, even if it’s not at the end of the aisle?

The worst idea is the proposal to ban advertising of foods high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) before 9pm. A ban on promotion is still an attack on free expression, even if the aim is corporate profit. It denies us the right to find out about products and decide for ourselves whether to buy them or not. There is even the perverse effect that if a company produces a lower-fat version of a product, but it still counts as high fat, they can’t advertise it before the ‘watershed’!

The ban will impact not just on frozen pizza and cheeseburgers, but also on olive oil (high in fat), cheese (high in fat and salt) and honey (too much sugar, even if it is ‘natural’). A similar ban by Transport for London led to advert bans for a cuddly, right-on home delivery company and even on some of TfL’s adverts. Moreover, the existing ban on adverts in programmes aimed at children hasn’t made a blind bit of difference to the much-inflated official rates of childhood obesity. Why does anyone think that extending the ban will help? More likely, it will hit the production of new programmes on TV networks that rely on advertising.

What’s remarkable is that Public Health England – which has been worse than useless in its handling of the current pandemic – is now at the forefront of promoting this kind of nonsense. Clearly, sitting about devising ways to shame us about our eating habits is a damn sight easier than delivering a viable system for testing to see if people are infected with a killer virus or ensuring we’ve got enough protective equipment for medical and social care staff.

As for Boris’s personal story of how a bout of ill-health encouraged him to change his ways? Well, that’s not atypical of how we coast along till life gives us the proverbial kick in the arse and we decide that we should try getting some exercise and eating more salad. It was a decision Johnson made all by himself. No doubt he had a little nagging from his much younger fiancée, Carrie Symonds, about how it would be a good idea for him to be around to watch his new baby son grow up.

He didn’t need more nanny-state policies to do it. It is seriously doubtful that Johnson’s substantial waistline was a result of him reacting like one of Pavlov’s dogs to a pre-watershed advert for Just Eat and firing off an order for chicken chow mein, mixed starters and a big bag of prawn crackers. There’s plenty of evidence to show that adverts work to persuade us to buy a particular brand or use a particular service, not whether we eat at all.

Even worse, throwing money at policies like these does nothing to help those people for whom obesity is a significant problem in their lives. Not only is being very overweight linked to various health conditions, but it is also just bloody inconvenient, even disabling in extremis. It also attracts considerable opprobrium. According to health campaigners, we live in an ‘obesogenic’ environment, surrounded by tasty and convenient treats. Regardless of whether that is true or not, we certainly live in an obesophobic environment, where rotund people are attacked as weak and stupid, doomed to an early grave and accused of bankrupting the NHS. The media are constantly telling us that thin is best and how we really must change our lives.

In those circumstances, the policies presented in the obesity strategy will make little difference. They may even make things worse. Permanently losing large amounts of weight is far from easy.

Advert bans, calorie counts and prescriptions for gym membership will make little difference to obesity rates – but they will chip away at our freedom to choose how we live.

Rob Lyons is convenor of the Academy of Ideas Economy Forum.

Picture by: Getty.

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James Gittings

30th July 2020 at 3:54 pm

Here’s a new idea for you Boris. Make people aware of the ketogenic and carnivore diet. Channels dedicated to those diets provide plenty of evidence for their role in fat loss and are littered with comments praising their success. That way, people who struggled with getting thinner for years will reverse their obesity in addition to their Type 2 diabetes and hypertension. And not single penny from the taxpayer is needed.

Dodgy Geezer

30th July 2020 at 7:27 am

What is bad about this policy is that the diet proposed is based on incorrect science and has been shown not to work.

This is similar to the Climate Change policy, Covid policy, Brexit policy and many others.

Their response to our pointing this out is to make complaining illegal….

Jerry Owen

30th July 2020 at 9:08 am

I remember the days when a good fry up set you up for the day ( it still does after a skinfull on the Friday night before !). Now it’s bad, eggs were good, cheese, and all dairy products were good, now they are not good, ditto red wine, coffee, salt, fruit juice, ( could never afford that as a kid ), the list is endless.
There is only one conclusion to be drawn over the chopping and changing of the benefits of different foodstuffs and that is the fact that no one knows for sure.
Except of course for one person .. ‘I’ the individual.
A sugar tax isn’t helpful to a diabetic.
It is best left to the individual to put into their body that which they want to put in it.

Travis Henderson

4th August 2020 at 7:49 pm

The high-carbohydrate, high-grain diets which cause obesity were only pushed by government departments which were captured by industrial interests.

Darth Saddius

29th July 2020 at 7:19 pm

During part of my working life I was fortunate in being able to spend some time doing research in an obscure branch of materials science, both in labs and libraries including the British Library. The old British Library had two main science sites in central London which were wonderful labyrinths of knowledge. At the end of a working day if I had time I would wonder around for a few minutes browsing at random, amazed at the vast range of obscure journals especially related to industrial and applied sciences. I was always struck that one of the largest sections covered food science – food chemistry, including the chemistry of artificial flavours, food pychology, production, mechanical properties (including the fracture mechanics of biscuits, no word of a lie) etc etc. There were shelves and shelves of the stuff. No one pays for all this effort if they don’t think it is going to persuade people to buy salt, fat, water and sugar. Think on’t as they say in Yorkshire.

Mark Beal

29th July 2020 at 7:06 pm

As so often, George Orwell understood the issues involved very well. From The Road to Wigan Pier, chapter 6:

“The basis of [the miner’s family’s] diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes–an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or […] ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. When you are […] underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea!”

Mark Houghton

30th July 2020 at 12:27 pm

I think you’ll find that those in receipt of welfare these days have much more money than miners back in the early 20th century so your point is invalid. I’ve been poor and I’ve always eaten healthily.

James Knight

29th July 2020 at 6:13 pm

Each new initiative is an advertisement to the failure of the previous one. Governments are addicted to these placebo measures because they provide short term feeling of euphoria but that soon wears off and they require a bigger hit.

Not to forget how damaging the official obsession with calories is to people with eating disorders.

Steele Rudd

2nd August 2020 at 7:29 am

You’re right about government (ie, us) paying millions for public health campaigns, usually led with big solemn shots of the incumbent Minister lecturing us with the current vibe. Less visible are the very well paid advisers who come up with all these new and innovative (or old and discredited) campaigns… over and over.

Christopher Tyson

29th July 2020 at 6:11 pm

I’d wager that The PM’s ‘libertarian instincts’ don’t really amount to much, certainly no match for his ‘get power and keep power’ instincts. In any case libertarianism is over-rated I mean the Marquis de Sade was a libertarian and he was an odd chap to be sure. Today’s libertarianism is usually ( and thankfully) more mundane than the De Sade variety, more ‘I’ll do what I want and…and that’s it really’.
Nannyism is the default elite position, it seems to work, it annoys a few old fashioned individualists but a lot of people are okay with it or even welcome it n some forms. The ‘behavioural sciences’ are strangely taken seriously and their number is always well represented on government committees, my Husserlian phenomenologist critique has not made any inroads, I can’t help thinking that Husserl has been misunderstood, no doubt some will argue that I misunderstand Husserl, I see him in the Cartesian tradition, as well as in the existentialist tradition, some regard Cartesianism and existentialism as being at odds, but I digress.
Embracing therapy culture remains a good career move, from Prince William to Stephen Fry to the political bruiser Alistair Campbell, opening up about your mental health is a winning strategy, revitalising a moribund institution like the monarchy, a political has been like Campbell, to be fair Fry is popular anyway.
Nanny policies, are easy to promote, don’t take much thought, the plebs masochistically take all the blame.
The government acquires some authority, shows that it cares, might even make a few quid on health taxes, and most importantly reminds everyone that it’s still around.
The break down in authority in current western society has often been discussed, parents, teachers, politicians, religion, and yet the authority of councellors, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, behavioural scientists, has not faced any serious challenge, on the contrary institutions and individuals continue to default to this class, the therapeutic class is sovereign; politicians, celebrities, even the divine right of kings bows down before the therapeutic class. The great and the good take the knee to flatter black lives matter, glass beads to the natives in exchange for gold, true power is elsewhere.

Andy Paul

29th July 2020 at 5:01 pm

People have the information but equally they are being nagged so often and so loudly that they switch off; the political classes want to micro manage every area of our lives and indeed believe they are entitled to and people switch off with a mental “f**K you”….

Leave people alone..

Stephen J

29th July 2020 at 4:27 pm

It might be a good idea to keep the obviously fat inducing foods (like “diet” foods) in very thin aisles at the supermarket… Then only thin people can access them.

I’ll get me coat.

Mark Houghton

29th July 2020 at 2:54 pm

“Permanently losing large amounts of weight is far from easy.”- I bet it’s easier than dying early cancer or heart disease though.

Warren Alexander

29th July 2020 at 2:04 pm

Less criticism and more praise for this transformational government policy. I have been waiting all my life for someone like Nanny Doris to come along and tell me what food I’m allowed to eat. It is a complete revelation that eating lots of high calorie fatty, sugary and salty foods are likely to make me fat. Thank the Lord for Nanny’s benevolent hectoring.

Dodgy Geezer

29th July 2020 at 1:41 pm

Boris’s obesity strategy treats us like children?

Worse. I would say, slaves….

Sandy Shore

29th July 2020 at 3:06 pm

Discounted gym membership equals slavery? You been on the sugared drinks again?

David J

29th July 2020 at 8:29 pm

I wouldn’t object to some GovUK pushback against the spending power of the fast-food industry, provided there’s no mawkish preaching involved.

BJ is doubtless very aware of the issue, as he had a close run-in with C-19 earlier this year, and in. nay case is a cyclist of many years standing.

In schools, bring back domestic science, so a new generation of children can feed themselves properly.

Sandy Shore

29th July 2020 at 1:40 pm

Jeez, or as Paedo friendly mad Frank Furedi might say, Now then, now then guys and gals. It’s only a bit of sound health advice. Calm down. Best focus on the really important issues, like not wearing a face mask in Lidl or a burka in Waitrose.

Dodgy Geezer

29th July 2020 at 1:45 pm

No one has a problem with ‘sound health advice’ (though I have been on this Earth for long enough to remember several changes of such advice to diametrically opposed positions).

What we have a problem with is being FORCED to follow it. Try finding any squash without artificial sweetener in the shops today….

Jonathan Marshall

29th July 2020 at 6:12 pm

Well said, DG.

James Knight

29th July 2020 at 6:20 pm

It is the government meddling in private health. It is not only “advice” choice is being removed, advertising restricted and taxes have already been implemented.

We pay countless millions for Public Health England but they don’t even know what public health means. The amount of sugar in cornflakes is not a public health emergency, but covid19 certainly was. It seems to be easier for them to talk to adults like children than do what they were paid to and protect public health.

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