14 April 2021

The last thing Britain’s pubs need is mandatory calorie counts

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As lockdown lifted in England this week there was a palpable sense of joy. Not everything is back to normal, we can only eat and drink outside and it is unseasonably cold, if mercifully dry. However the jubilation felt by ordinary people was not felt by the anti-obesity lobby — their aim is for a truly dry country. Indeed, The Sun today reports that their first move as lockdown eases off is to suggest forcing pubs to display calorie counts for their drinks.

It beggars belief that the public health establishment is still coming out with this kind of thing after a year in which it has failed so abjectly to deal with the pandemic – a core and essential function of their supposed role, for which they are granted credentials and state authority.

In truth, though, the mission creep away from controlling infectious diseases and into mollycoddling the general public has been going on for decades. The position of many public health officials seems to be that the greatest threat to our nation’s wellbeing is actually the Evil Corporations that fill our stores and our pubs and our restaurants with fattening grub and grog. For, you see, they have been pulling the wool over your eyes. By not telling you that the luminous pink lime and strawberry cider is very sugary you’ve been going around drinking it as though it were a slimming aid.

Except, of course, you weren’t. Nor has anyone for the past 3,000 years been at all surprised that seeing away a couple of jars a day is likely to mean you develop the beer belly so characteristic of our nation. Nor is it a surprise that certain drinks carry connotations of weight-watching — think of the vodka soda or swapping red wine for white. More to the point  – and forgive me for committing a cardinal sin here – isn’t what you choose to put in your body your responsibility and yours alone?

The real question here is who the Government is trying to sway with this policy, and what issue they are attempting to solve.

If it is a lack of information, they need not worry. Anyone with a smartphone can find a drink’s nutritional contents at the touch of a button. And even if you can’t get an official number from the brand of your choice, the estimates found on many dieting apps are close – at least as close as the average difference between what would be stated on a menu and what you’d actually consume after spillages, over/under pouring, the dregs that remain in the glass, and the inconsistencies you’ll get from the makeup of cocktails.

Calories themselves are useful, we know that you already consume calories and (all else being equal) if you consume more consistently you’ll end up gaining weight and if you reduce consumption you’ll lose weight. But they are not the be-all-and-end-all of good health. Rather they are one part of a complicated interplay between lifestyle, exercise, eating, sleep and various other factors.

Nor are calorie counts actually that useful in society at large. There’s now a good body of evidence now showing that when used actively they can help adults lose weight in a targeted and time-limited fashion. However, people who don’t want the information (but who may well be the intended audience) don’t pay attention to the numbers.

There’s also a question of who bears the costs here. As it stands, it’s many people, diffusely – either by adding their drinking habits into a dieting app, or Googling the calories in their drinks. Each person loses a little of their time or a bit of their data they’d rather spend on something else. Those of us that couldn’t care less gain and lose nothing. Those that forget they have access to a world full of information via the device in their pocket (that they’ll spend the entire time in the pub staring at) bear the cost of not knowing and potentially over-consuming.

If we were to introduce mandatory calorie counts, however, it would be the already battered pub and hospitality industry forced to take on more bureaucracy and expense when many establishments are already struggling just to stay afloat. And the cost is considerable: the Government has estimated that the cost of changing all labels at all pubs on all drinks, and enforcing compliance and any legal objections, will be £92m.

Are we really to believe that there is a £92m cost to people that really wanted to know the caloric content of the drinks they were buying and couldn’t be bothered to Google it? Are we really to believe that the Government, having spent billions of taxpayers’ cash shuttering the pubs, propping them up, making it easier for closed ones to restart or for communities to buy their local, now wants to land them with more costly red tape?

All of these issues add up, and the Tories should realise that the more nanny state policies they promote, the more it adds up to a reputation for interventions that don’t work. The more it suggests, too, that they’re being played by a public health establishment that really hates the idea of personal responsibility which voters thought was a pillar of conservatism. Then there’s the totally tone-deaf timing of this proposal, just as pubs are finally able to welcome punters back after months of enforced closure.

If the Government’s professed support for pubs means anything, they should forget about this kind of pettifogging intervention and think long and hard about the proper role of our public health establishment.

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Matt Kilcoyne is the Deputy Director of the Adam Smith Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.