The Government’s latest scheme to get Britain fit leaves a very sour taste in the mouth.
Food tsar Henry Dimbleby is to recommend a six per cent tax on salty foods as the flagship policy of his National Food Strategy.
Alongside the sugar tax on fizzy drinks and the blanket ban on junk food advertising, the policy typifies what one politician described in 2019 as the ‘continuing creep of the nanny state’.
Back then, a certain Boris Johnson had just become Prime Minister. Calling Britain the ‘land of liberty’, he promised to bring an end to ‘sin taxes’.
But before we could start celebrating having clawed back some of our freedom, the pandemic hit – and everything turned on its head.
Norms and taboos about which aspects of everyday life the state should or shouldn’t interfere with were smashed. People were arrested for the crime of ‘socialising’ and there were questions over whether it was lawful to sit on a park bench to drink a coffee.
And in the middle of the first lockdown, Mr Johnson came down with a serious case of Covid-19. What did the Prime Minister blame for his near-brush with death? His weight.
‘The reason I had such a nasty experience with the disease,’ said Boris in October, ‘my friends, I was too fat.’
He went on to lose a stone, which he achieved by ditching his ‘late-night cheese’ and hiring a personal trainer.
But alongside the extra pounds, the Prime Minister seems also to have shed his libertarian lionisation of our freedoms.
Excessive salt consumption is a problem: It is linked to hypertension, which can cause strokes and heart disease. But the lesson from Theresa May’s sugar tax is resoundingly that sin taxes don’t work.
The evidence shows the soft drinks tax had almost no effect on sugar consumption and, by increasing the cost of the weekly shopping trip, it made the poor much poorer.
This new salt tax will have a similar effect, making high-sodium products such as bread and meat more expensive and bumping the price of a single bag of Quavers up to 91p.
Not that those in favour of the tax have any experience of this very real-world effect.
Dimbleby is the millionaire founder of Leon, a London-based restaurant chain that sells gluten-free chicken nuggets and something called a ‘clean green shake’.
He can afford to turn his nose up at salt – millions in this country cannot.
Obesity is unquestionably the next pandemic. Every year since 2014, excess body fat has caused more deaths than smoking, including more than a million hospital admissions in England in the year leading up to the pandemic.
But a ‘tax-and-ban’ strategy simply isn’t the way to address this.
Public health chiefs need to stop working from tired old policies that seek to force people into changing their behaviours and instead work towards policies that encourage people to make healthier life choices, without penalising those who, for whatever reason, can’t.
So come on, Boris! You may have gone down a waist size, but there’s still space for the freedom-loving PM who bounced into Downing Street in 2019. After all, if you can lose the pounds without the imposition of the nanny state, why can’t we?