Conservative Home: Obesity rates are at a critical point – but campaigners’ plans to tackle the issue are deeply flawed

This article was first published in Conservative Home.

More than one in five British children are obese by the time they leave primary school at the age of 11. That puts the childhood obesity rate at the highest it has ever been. It creeps higher still with each year that passes.

Having been asleep at the wheel on this issue for years, the public health lobby is now stepping up its game. A recent experiment, featured in a BBC One documentary, investigated the effects of “ultra-processed foods” on children’s brains. Dr Chris van Tulleken, who conducted the experiment and fronted the documentary, suggests unhealthy food does much more than make us fatter. He presents it as “addictive”, comparing it to drugs.

His thesis seems to be that private companies are maliciously getting children hooked on their unhealthy products and, therefore, that the state ought to legislate against them in order to safeguard children’s health.

We saw the same phenomenon with the hysteria over video game addiction. We were told for years that helpless, rosy-cheeked children were becoming hopelessly addicted to games consoles. That had the effect of making a relatively new technology seem sinister and threatening. All sorts of interventionist measures were proposed in the name of saving our children from this immediate threat which, in any context other than a health emergency, would seem like a gross overreaction.

Time and again, children’s health is weaponised as a justification for pushing through all sorts of unnecessary new punitive taxes and regulations which make life more difficult for consumers and fortify the nanny state.

Take, for instance, the plan to ban advertising for “junk food” on television before 9pm and online at all times. Just before the policy was confirmed as a part of the government’s anti-fat drive, shortly after a public consultation had closed, an anonymous government source welcomed the release of a helpfully timed “exposé” calling attention to the amount of junk food ads seen by children every day.

The paper was published by a group called Bite Back 2030 which boasts the support of celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. It was shameless in its use of children’s voices to make its case seem more compelling. The introduction to the report reads: “I’m a 16-year-old boy from Leicester. I feel like I’m being bombarded with junk food ads on my phone and on my computer. And I’m pretty sure this is getting worse.”

Note the use of “bombarded”, an unduly aggressive term designed to vilify the entire advertising industry. The paper is littered with similar rhetoric which, in the absence of a persuasive material case for new restrictions, takes a sentimental route instead, daring us to risk leaving our children exposed.

The problem is the disconnect between the rhetoric and the policy. If Oliver et al were truly invested in improving children’s diets, they wouldn’t be backing an ad ban policy which the Government’s own research has shown would remove just 1.7 calories from children’s diets per day – around half a Smartie.

While the health benefits would be miniscule, the policy’s effect on the advertising industry would be appalling. Research from the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute has shed light on the unintended consequences of an ill-considered blanket ban. For instance, it seems items which could never reasonably be described as “junk food” – honey, tinned fruit, mustard and yoghurt, to name but a few – will become collateral damage. Countless businesses will be affected.

Perhaps there is a case to be made that we should fight fire with fire. Those pushing these policies are willing to disregard the evidence and use stories of human suffering – albeit highly questionable ones – to advance their cause. In which case, consider the case of my mother, a single, underprivileged immigrant who runs a small baking business out of her kitchen. Under this new law, posting photos of her cakes to her Instagram account – the sole tool she uses to advertise her services – would become illegal.

An anonymous government source – the same one who warmly welcomed Oliver’s vital research into McDonald’s Facebook presence – explained that we needn’t worry because the policy is targeted at ‘the food giants’, as opposed to ‘small companies advertising home-made cakes online’.

It remains unclear how a ban on a certain type of advertising can be enforced against some businesses and not others. Last year, there was genuine legal ambiguity over whether it was a crime to sit on a park bench and people were arrested for the offence of “socialising outdoors”. A one-line briefing to a newspaper in which a faceless government representative promises that your livelihood will be somehow exempt from its new law is hardly reassuring.

The inescapable fact is that our public health authorities have been asleep at the wheel for years on this issue. Obesity rates have climbed and climbed. Now that the situation is approaching a critical point, they are pushing through tired, 20th century ideas to deal with 21st century problems.

The abolition of Public Health England was a step in the right direction. We can only hope its successor, a new agency led by Jenny Harries, will bring a fresh, considered view to this area.