15 July 2021

The Government should give the anti-obesity crusaders a wide berth

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Still reeling from my eighth jammy dodger of the morning, I turned with trepidation to the latest iteration of the National Food Strategy (NFS), a government-commissioned review into what we should or shouldn’t be eating.

The seemingly innocuous title hides the Olympian ambition of this report, led by Henry Dimbleby, who co-founded the fast food chain Leon. The NFS is not just about trying to re-engineer our diets from on high, though there’s plenty of that – Dimbleby’s ambition extends to almost every facet of the food system.  Not content to simply raise taxes on Bad Food (more on that below), the proposals in the NFS will also solve “diet inequality”, change our national food culture, restore Britain’s green and pleasant land, protect Our NHS from the scourge of cheap Frosties and make sure we don’t have any dangerous tariff-free food from overseas.

It is the tax proposals that have caught the media’s eye. The suggestion here is for a £6/kilo levy on salt and £3/kilo on sugar. “Bonkers” is how The Sun chose to describe the idea, noting the sharp price rises it would mean for a range of everyday products. A jar of Asda’s own brand honey, for instance, would go up 120% to over £4. Hiking prices would be bad enough in normal times, but when inflation is starting to take off and the economy up the proverbial creek, the thought of certain products being too cheap is not something I find overly troublesome.

Appearing on the Today programme this morning, however, Dimbleby insisted that prices wouldn’t actually rise on most foods because companies would simply reformulate their products to avoid the tax, in much the same way they have with the sugar tax. Of course, he added, some products are so egregiously bad that they are beyond reformulation. That, he went on, leads inexorably to the question – and he really did say this, you can check – “is the freedom to keep Frosties cheap worth destroying the NHS for?”. 

Jaw-dropping hyperbole aside, Dimbleby is trying to have his cake and eat it (perish the thought). He argues that the tax won’t apply to most foods, but also that it will raise billions of pounds for the Treasury to spray around on various good and nutritious schemes. You often see this pattern with advocates of new taxes, claiming that it won’t touch the sides of those affected, but will also raise stonking great amounts of cash for the Exchequer.

What’s striking about the sugar/salt levy is just how little all this intervention will achieve. Even according to the report’s most optimistic modelling, increasing the price of sugary and salty foods will only cut people’s consumption by 38 calories a day, the equivalent of a moderate five-minute jog.  Nor is there any obvious reason that increasing the price of, say, Frosties, will suddenly lead people to eat fruit and vegetables. As Chris Snowdon has noted elsewhere, people don’t avoid fruit and vegetables because they’re expensive – many are extremely cheap – but because they simply aren’t as appealing as other foods.

Part of that lack of appeal is not just taste per se, but knowing how to prepare things in an appetising way. Indeed, one of the more sensible suggestions in the NFS is that we put more resources into teaching people how to cook. Schools do have a legal requirement to teach cookery and nutrition up to the age of 14 but the report notes that this isn’t actually happening in all schools. Personally, I’m much more comfortable with the state exercising its power by teaching kids how to cook properly than by trying to endlessly interfere in adults’ choices.

The good news is that the Government doesn’t yet appear all that enthusiastic about these proposals. Environment Secretary George Eustice issued a non-committal statement saying he would “carefully consider its conclusions and respond with a White Paper within six months”. And earlier today Boris Johnson said he was “not attracted to the idea of extra taxes on hardworking people” and stressed that this was an “independent report”. 

Given the enormity of the challenges already facing the Government, and the Health Secretary in particular, they would be forgiven for giving proposals with such dubious benefits a wide berth.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.