4 June 2019

Public health paternalists are getting greedy


Those who support individual freedom used to be laughed at when we said tobacco plain packaging would set a terrible precedent, eventually leading to plain packaging for food, soft drinks, and alcohol. We were told the idea was ludicrous and this was just the paranoia of ‘ultra-libertarians’. Students for Liberty was so paranoid that they created ‘Nanny State Corner Stores’ as a preview of the grim, grey future that awaited us if the public health nightmare were to become reality.

Fast forward to June 2019 and the Government are facing calls for plain packaging of confectionery, crisps and sugary drinks. The left-leaning IPPR has released a report today calling for an all-out assault on consumer choice, conveniently timed to add momentum to the Government’s own consultation on treating Tony the Tiger like smut by banning unhealthy food ads on TV before the watershed.

True to form, the Corbynite wing of the Labour Party are salivating at the prospect of drab Soviet-style supermarkets, devoid of any branding that might encourage people to buy products that everyone knows are unhealthy when consumed in excess. The only saving grace is that British supermarkets, unlike their Soviet-era counterparts, will remain stocked with food — at least for now.

Call me a radical, but dull green Freddo bars isn’t my vision of a fairer, brighter Britain. How long until we imitate yet more of the anti-smoking playbook and slap pictures of obese children on packets of crisps? And aside from being immensely patronising, there’s the small matter that it wouldn’t (and doesn’t) work.

The progressive left’s view of advertising and branding is that it brainwashes us into wanting more stuff. This is based on a false model of human action, in which we are purely defined by our environment and have no individual capacity. While this may be true of young children, they tend to have little purchasing power to express these preferences and also have to contend with parents who often say no.

For older children and adults, advertising doesn’t magically trick us into buying more of something. Instead, it influences which particular brand we buy: firms use branding to gain market share over their competitors. We know this because advertising spending has little or no relationship to the size of the market for particular categories of products, whereas successful advertising campaigns often boost market share for a particular business.

Campaigners made the same basic error with tobacco plain packaging, which has unsurprisingly had little impact on smoking initiation or cessation where it has been implemented.

Meanwhile, the studies marshalled in support of the ‘manipulative’ view of advertising often confuse correlation with causation or misrepresent the preponderance of evidence. And cracking down on branding comes at a cost — worse TV when channels lose food advertising revenue, less competition as new entrants struggle to make a name for themselves in a crowded market and consumers finding it more difficult to find products that match their personal tastes. If anything, it would solidify the market power of companies like Mars and Cadbury.

Even if we did accept the case against advertising, which goes against academic evidence and common sense, there’s another big problem with this measure — deciding what products it applies to. Transport for London’s ‘junk food’ ad ban used Public Health England’s definition of food and drink high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS), which infamously (and some might argue justly) caught out ad-ban supporters FarmDrop who committed the cardinal sin of including eggs and butter in their tube poster. With Public Health England looking to tighten up the definition to include the vast majority of fruit juices and smoothies, we could soon end up with plain packaged Innocent drinks on our shelves.

Then there’s the fact that the oft-touted childhood obesity crisis — the backdrop of resurgent Nanny Statism — is a myth. Our way of measuring childhood obesity is wildly out of step with standard clinical practice, and results in a bizarre situation where the majority of obese children appear to shed a few stone as soon as they blow out the candles on their reduced-fat sixteenth birthday cake.

But the most concerning part of this whole affair is that public health paternalism is not just a present on the left. On the contrary, supposedly freedom-loving Conservatives have clamoured for a succession of deeply illiberal, punitive interventions such as the Lucozade-ruining sugar tax, bans on buy-one-get-on-free deals and mandatory calorie counts on menus.

They are in a state of total capitulation to the whims of the killjoys. One can only hope the ongoing leadership contest produces a Prime Minister capable of making the principled case for free markets, tolerance of individual choice, and enjoying a cheeky purple Freddo.

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Daniel Pryor is Head of Programmes at the Adam Smith Institute.