26 June 2018

No law is too draconian for Britain’s public health brigade


Two years ago, the government published a childhood obesity strategy that had been drafted by David Cameron’s administration. Despite the inclusion of a sugar tax and an unprecedented food reformulation programme, “public health” campaigners inevitably complained that it did not go far enough. Evidence subsequently came to light that Theresa May’s team had indeed stripped out some of the nanny state policies favoured by her predecessor.

On Sunday, a new strategy was published with all of Cameron’s big government policies included and plenty more besides. Taken together, they represent the most draconian interference in the food supply by any government since rationing was abolished.

This time, all but the most fanatical campaigners found it difficult to conceal their delight. They will be back with a new set of demands, of course, but for the time being they have got more than they could ever have dreamt possible. If this total capitulation is how May deals with the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Sarah Wollaston, God help us when she’s negotiating with the EU.

Insofar as the food fanatics have a complaint, it is that the government is launching a public consultation on some of the proposals. They would prefer May to plough ahead with their deranged wish list without giving any thought to the consequences.

It is possible that cooler heads will prevail once it becomes clear that having the state control not only the price and promotion of food but also its ingredients and where it can be positioned in shops will cause immense damage for no gain. Let us take each policy in turn.

Advertising ban for HFSS food on television before 9pm

Campaigners prefer to call this a “junk food ad ban”, a deliberately misleading pejorative that has been adopted by the BBC. There is no legal definition of junk food. The proposed ban will apply to food that is deemed to be high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) according to a puritanical system known as the Nutrient Profile Model. This is a vastly broader category than the term “junk food” implies.

It includes raisins, sultanas, jam, honey, cheese, mustard, most tinned fruit, most breakfast cereals (including high fibre varieties), Marmite, mayonnaise (light and regular), tomato soup, butter and olive oil, to name but a few. All of them can be consumed as part of a healthy diet and most of them have been eaten for generations, if not millennia, without any problem.

The Nutrient Profile Model is currently being revised to make the definition of HFSS even broader. Pure fruit juice will soon join soy sauce and yoghurt on the list of supposed “junk food”.

Under the proposal of Jamie Oliver’s government, they will all be confined to late night television. Aside from being immensely patronising to viewers, the consequences for commercial broadcasters are obvious.

They will be deprived of millions of pounds of revenue that would otherwise be spent on programming. There will be a glut of food advertising after 9pm which the food campaigners will try to ban, and advertisers will spend more money on print and online advertising, which the campaigners will also try to ban. People will keep eating what they like.

Positioning of products

In his cringe-worthy introduction to the plan, Jeremy Hunt laments that “most parents have been in a position where your sleeve gets tugged as your child’s eyes get drawn to the sweets or crisps at the checkout”. Since it is unthinkable that parents should have to say no to their children from time to time, the Health Secretary wants to make it a criminal offence for shopkeepers to stock HFSS food near the till. Putting it at the entrance of the shop or at the end of an aisle will also be forbidden.

I can’t believe I’ve just written those words. It is mind-boggling that this could soon be the law and you just know that there are people out there with enough time on their hands to go snooping around shops to grass up any retailer who has left a packet of crisps out of position.

This policy will be bad enough for supermarkets and manufacturers who will lose a key lever of competition and promotion, but it will be a nightmare for small shopkeepers who keep the confectionery at the till to stop children nicking it. Where is a small corner shop supposed to keep the vast range of staples that constitute HFSS food if not near the entrance or near the counter? Once suspects that the “public health” activists want them to be behind shutters with the cigarettes.

It beggars belief that any government, let alone a nominally conservative one, intends to legislate to slightly reduce the likelihood of a parent being nagged by their offspring. None of the policies in the plan stand up to the John Stuart Mill test, but this ill-conceived idea takes the reformulated biscuit for showing the extent of the government’s creepy desire to micromanage the smallest details of private transactions. As one wag on Twitter said yesterday, “I shall demonstrate to the Tory party just how easy it is to say “no”, next time they knock on my door and ask for my vote.”

Banning BOGOFs

Along with its concerns about “pester power”, the government is worried that the act of shopping “can lead us to purchase more than we need”. Apparently unfamiliar with the concept of fridges, freezers and cupboards, it wants further legislation to save us from this horrifying prospect with a ban on ‘buy one get one free and multi-buy offers’. This is an idea that has already been tried with alcohol in Scotland. It did not reduce the amount purchased.

Multi-buy discounts serve a useful purpose for businesses dealing with large quantities of perishable goods and are a boon to shoppers who want to make their money go further. If shops are forbidden from selling two-for-one, you don’t need to be Deborah Meaden to work out that they will sell at half-price instead — or at whatever discount is needed to shift the stock. What will the government do then? Ban all discounting? Introduce price controls? Minimum pricing? With May and Hunt at the helm, anything is possible.

Calorie labelling

The government has pledged to “introduce legislation to mandate consistent calorie labelling in England for the out of home sector”. This is a nice idea in principle. People should know what they are buying.

The problem is that calorie counts on walls and menus are only a practical possibility for restaurants that sell the same dishes in exactly the same sizes every day. For pubs, cafés and independent restaurants that regularly change their menu, it is prohibitively expensive. For those that do not have tightly controlled standard servings, it is virtually impossible.

The government acknowledges that “the compliance burden associated with this policy may be disproportionately high for micro-businesses”. If it has any sense at all, it will exclude independent restaurants, coffee shops, cafés, fish and chip shops, kebab shops, pubs and pizzerias from this legislation, leaving only the biggest takeaway chains, most of which already display calorie counts anyway.

None of this serves much purpose. Like the BOGOF ban and the sugar tax, mandatory calorie labelling has been tried elsewhere and failed. There is a substantial body of evidence from natural experiments and randomised controlled trials showing that it has little or no effect on the number of calories consumed. It seems that people understand that cream cakes and donor kebabs are not health foods without being given their precise calorie count.

These are the policies that grabbed the headlines, but there are others in the plan in addition to the sugar tax that is already in place and the food reformulation madness that continues behind the scenes.

All useless solutions to the statistical fiction of the childhood obesity “epidemic”. We are now set on a path of endless interventions in the market to deal with an imaginary crisis. Each will be more damaging to business and consumers than the last.

Those of us who opposed the sugar tax did not do so merely because it is an unwarranted, ineffective and regressive sin tax. We knew that it would open the door to the “public health” fanatics who have been itching to deploy the weapons they used to harass smokers on the general population. So it has proved.

The message of the sugar tax was that it is the government’s business what we eat and drink; that our diets and waistlines are no longer a private matter but are the responsibility of the state. Jamie Oliver was right, for once, when it said that it was “symbolic”. It opened Pandora’s Box.

Having made our diets part of the government’s remit, we are now sleepwalking towards state control of the food supply. With barely a murmur of serious public debate, we face years of idiotic and draconian legislation that is almost nihilistic in its disregard for consequences and efficacy.

Christopher Snowdon is Head of Lifestyle Economics at the IEA.